In an article originally printed in the June edition of the Railway Gazette, Carmichael Fisher’s Bob Caton suggests the rail sector faces a demographic challenge, but a more inclusive and lateral approach to sourcing younger and more diverse employees could offer a way forward.

The rail mode is central to the success of the global economy. In Europe alone, it moves 1·6 billion tonnes of freight and 9 billion passengers each year. Railways have been successfully fulfilling this role for almost two centuries, but it is clear that they face some significant systemic challenges if this success is to be maintained.

Many of these challenges relate to people. In Europe, a third of all rail workers are now over 50 years old — in Spain, Greece and Italy, the proportion is more than 55%. At the other end of the age range, more than half of European operators report that the share of their workforce aged 30 or younger is no more than 10%. Across Europe, around three-quarters of people employed in rail are men; this is a much higher proportion than in the overall workforce and is not reflective of the societies the industry serves. These two issues are exacerbated by fears that the transport sector faces increased competition from other industries for the types of workers and skills that it needs.


Time for drastic change

Research conducted by the European Union has highlighted ‘persistent negative stereotypes’ about railway work as being a barrier to addressing the demographic and diversity challenge. Often these images suggest a traditional, routine-based career synonymous with middle aged male workers. This is not a new perception, but the problem it causes is becoming more acute as other transport modes are felt to be embracing diversity, innovation and youth more effectively.

Such perceptions are clearly unfair on the rail sector, as it too is embracing rapid technological change driven by automation and digitalisation, while also grappling with increasingly demanding stakeholder expectations. Yet it will be difficult for railways to realise the full potential of these trends if the industry remains reliant on a workforce with little balance in terms of either age, gender or background.

Overcoming the skills crisis requires a complex response, but it is not unachievable. Through its various associations and trade bodies, the rail sector needs to illustrate the problem and encourage inclusive debate that raises awareness of skill shortages, supports research, leads to the creation of training programmes that appeal to young people and, ultimately, works to change perception of the sector.

At an organisational level, much of  this work can be tackled by operators, infrastructure managers and suppliers. Each organisation can work to foster the right working environment, presenting a dynamic and open attitude. This is especially important to attract younger workers — the so-called ‘millennial’ generation. Railways should consider putting more effort into explaining the range of jobs available in the industry and the diverse types of skills that it needs, while also offering potential applicants access to people already using those skills in their company.

Achieving a more diverse industry will require the staff already working in it to embrace the benefits. In practice, this is likely to mean men in managerial positions actively supporting women and other minorities in their careers and recognising their contribution to corporate successes. Equally, a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to prejudice, including workplace sexism, is fundamental. Clear practical measures are also needed. To illustrate the real world issues, one railway organisation said that it wanted ‘half of its recruits’ to an inspection role to be women, yet it had taken no steps to address the problem of trackside toilet facilities.

As with other comparable industries, there is a dearth of female talent in middle and senior management roles; flexible working practices are a key component of addressing this problem. Fortunately, companies are starting to respond — one client in construction made flexible working a key element of its recruitment proposal and saw the number of female applicants increase immediately.

While flexible working practices are often perceived to be aimed solely at women with young families, there is clear evidence that such inclusive polices can benefit everyone, and companies which adopt them often report much higher staff retention rates.

recruitment in the rail sector

Looking outside of rail, skills from other sectors

One avenue clearly open to railway operators is to source talent from other sectors by focusing on transferable skills. At a middle and senior management level, Carmichael Fisher has successfully found rail executives from industries including cinema chains and fitness clubs because of their ability to offer a fresh perspective on the customer experience.

Executives who run airports could also bring obvious skills to a passenger rail role where the management of large volumes of people through major hubs is a priority. There has also been a recent case of a female executive transferring from running a chain of retail stores to a position managing railway subcontractors.

In such cases, a prior understanding of or experience in the rail industry is not necessarily a barrier to recruiting successfully. It is incumbent on both companies and recruiters to work together and think laterally. However, recruitment specialists are not arguing that the railways should comprise of people entirely from a non-rail background. As an estimate, perhaps around a third of employees could be so-called ‘outsiders’ who can bring fresh ideas, impetus and dynamism to a very traditional industry.

By working with recruiters, organisations can be creative in their identification of transferable skills. Finding talent from the narrow pool of railwaymen alone is not going to meet the needs of an increasingly complex industry.

About Bob Caton

Bob Caton is the Principal of Transportation & Infrastructure at Carmichael Fisher Executive Search, based in London. He has held a number of senior positions at various transport and rail businesses, including rolling stock leasing company HSBC Rail.

For a confidential conversation about how Bob and the team can help you hire your next senior hire in the transport industry, contact him directly here.

By Bob Caton, Head of Practice

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Bob Caton

Head of Practice

Bob leads the Transportation and Infrastructure Practice for Carmichael Fisher. He has a wide range of industry expertise and specializes in Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Utilities.