RAILTRACK'S RESTRUCTURING has this week put the beleaguered rail industry back into the spotlight, raising again the industry's most fundamental problem: there are simply not enough qualified engineers.
The acute shortage of skills already cuts across the breadth of the industry, with consultants and contractors joining Railtrack in an increasingly desperate search for talent. The profile of existing rail engineers is an aging one and many are coming up for retirement, which will make the recruitment problem even more acute. All of which is good news for graduates.
There are now a host of companies offering a range of cash incentives as they attempt to plug the gap. Railtrack has taken the lead, with a £2,000 golden hello on offer to entice graduates into its ranks. But consultants and contractors are following suit. Contractor Carillion is offering its new graduates £6,000 in subsistence allowances, tipping starting salaries over the £20,000 mark.
'The rail industry in general needs engineers across the board, ' says Railtrack's Donal McCabe. 'We have about 300 jobs to fill in engineering in the next year, ' he adds.
But after this week's restructuring, where will these jobs be? The new look Railtrack is now split into three divisions: major enhancements, property, and operations (see News this week). The operations division is certain to be most active, with Railtrack planning a more hands-on approach to maintenance and renewal than in recent years.
To do this Railtrack desperately needs to recruit permanent way engineers, explains Railtrack head of track engineering David Ventry. 'There is a real shortage of permanent way engineers, but there are simply not enough of them.
'We are developing ways to take people with general engineering skills, be they graduates or chartered engineers, and turn them into permanent way engineers. The reality is that the skills needed in permanent way are not dissimilar to those needed in highways, ' adds Ventry.
With the impending retirement exodus, Ventry hopes that Railtrack will be able to inspire a new generation of permanent way engineers. 'Permanent way is an extremely interesting challenge and a rewarding career.
'Project management is about following a detailed series of rules. Permanent way is about following a detailed series of rules but also making engineering decisions and judgments, ' he claims. 'It may be a serious business, but its also fun.'
Ventry is enthusiastic about the future. 'The going rates for permanent way engineers have risen significantly over the last few years, ' he says, 'and the fact that our team has recently doubled in size is a strong indicator.'
Railtrack is not alone in championing its industry. Contractors and consultants are also doing their bit.
'A career in the rail industry is far broader than pure civil engineering, ' explains Balfour Beatty personnel manager George Law. 'Rail engineers need to have a better understanding of civil engineering as well as a good appreciation of signalling and mechanical engineering.
This knowledge is needed early as graduates get very involved in management early.'
With such a wide range of skills required, Law warns that while rewarding, working in rail is also demanding. 'This is not the industry for an easy life, ' he says. 'But if you have the skill you really have the opportunity to make something out of it.'
Variety is also the key with consultants. 'The rail industry doesn't want pure civil engineers, ' explains WS Atkins rail division head Richard Molloy. In recognition of this, WSAR has just launched an 'integrated graduate training scheme', expanding beyond pure civils to include structured training across all rail disciplines with specific non-civil rail objectives.
Attracting and retaining graduates is vital to WSAR, with a significant number of graduates training towards ICE membership. 'The goal is to create an integrated training regime, ' says Molloy, 'where graduates will get exposure in all areas of rail engineering'.
With Railtrack, contractors and consultants are united in a belief that the industry is only set to grow further, for those with the right skills, the rail industry has fast become an employees' market.
Key points Railtrack is among the firms offering graduates golden hellos in an effort to plug the skills gap Working in rail is demanding but also rewarding Atkins is training graduates to be more than pure civil engineers Railtrack hopes to attract engineers from other sectors of industry