Rail contractors and consultants are confronting the legacy of insufficient recruitment before and during the privatisation of the UK's railway network. Privatisation has introduced competition, which may be good for commercial efficiency, but is threatening the development of the railway industry's skills base.
'There have never been such good prospects for young and mid-career professionals joining the railway industry,' says Amey Railways personnel director John Grose. 'We need more electronic engineers, estimators, project managers, QSs, signalling engineers and permanent way designers.'
Grose says the apparent shortage of skilled professionals in the railway industry is a result of the trimming down of British Rail companies for a number of years before privatisation and during the sell off period.
'Downsizing through voluntary redundancy had been going on within BR for a generation, and recruitment and training was stopped altogether during the privatisation period.'
Mott MacDonald's industrial and commercial director Richard Williams says rail companies must work together to solve a shortage of specialised skills that is particularly difficult for smaller companies to tackle due to the large costs involved.
'There has to be a coming together so the smaller businesses in particular can share precious resources and unlock funds to enable the industry to recruit on a growth basis rather than just passing people around.
'The original reaction of the new private railway companies to recruitment was to be competitive. However, the problem will get worse unless a more industry-wide approach is adopted.'
Scott Wilson Railways is recruiting as hard and as fast as possible, and has been doing so for several years, says director Phil Shepherd. 'Systems engineering skills such as signalling, electrification,
heavy M&E engineering, telecommunications, and remote monitoring and control are in very high demand at the moment.'
Shepherd says the fragmentation of Britain's railway business as a result of privatisation led to a temporary loss of direction on training.
'The railway industry's eyes were on a different ball at the time, as you would expect. Most attention was focused on the process of takeover and ensuring work was secured. During and immediately after the privatisation period the responsibility for ensuring skills were developed was neglected, as previously all British Rail training was carried out centrally and in-house.'
Graham Coombs is director of communications at the Railway Industry Association. He says the new railway industry will solve the shortage of skilled personnel in time. In the meantime, the RIA is working with other industry bodies such as the Railway Industry Training Council setting up initiatives to aid the acceleration of graduate recruitment.
'With big schemes such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the West Coast Main Line upgrade coming up, we need to make sure there are going to be enough people with the right know-how around in the immediate future,' says Coombs.
Arup Transport railway business manager Nick Higton says his company is using re-training programmes to ease the burden on existing resources.
'We are re-training highways and telecommunications engineers and people with experience in electronics so they can work in railways. Electrical engineers generally have sufficient basic understanding for additional signalling training to be effective.'
The current demand for specialised railway systems skills such as signalling has led to an inevitable inflation of salaries and this, says Shepherd, is likely to create bad knock-on effects for clients.
'When skills are in high demand they become expensive, and the cost of signalling contracts is a serious concern for clients, not just in the UK.There is currently a worldwide explosion in rail projects creating a high demand for railway systems engineers.'
It seems that the highly specialised nature of systems engineers' work and the current high demand for their services is working against employers.
'Signalling engineering is immensely complicated,' says Shepherd. 'Training can take up to five years, including part time academic study. This is a heavy but worthwhile investment as long as the trainee stays with the company for a reasonable period of time.
'The coming of the free market has given employees more opportunity to move around. This is causing a dilemma for employers because any substantial investment in training cannot be guaranteed a return.'
The recruitment pattern for civil engineers in the rail industry is entirely the opposite, says Shepherd, with no shortage of recruits. Since privatisation competition for work has flooded in and many civil engineers have taken advantage of the gap in skills in the rail industry.
'Opportunities in rail are immense for the foreseeable future. The whole world seems to be shifting investment from roads to rail. Railtrack's 10 year spending plan pledges £1.25bn of funds per annum, so this is clearly a good business for engineers to be in.'