by Kim Ho, Assistant Editor, Infrastructure magazine

With the huge pipeline of rail projects around Australia showing no sign of slowing, the sector must act fast if it is to build its workforce and meet growing demand. In December 2019, Infrastructure Assistant Editor, Kim Ho, attended the Australasian Railway Association’s Young Professionals Forum to hear from the industry’s current and future leaders on the challenges and opportunities awaiting rail.

Danny Broad, Chair, ARA

The rail sector is facing a massive pipeline of work over the next 15 years. Governments have come to see passenger heavy and light rail as the ‘spine’ of their integrated transport solutions, connecting with buses and ferries.

Faster rail is key to the Federal Government’s plans to open up Australia’s regions. Freight rail, including major projects like Inland Rail, will provide the backbone for the national freight supply chain, creating an integrated rail and road solution.

New opportunities bring new challenges

While current unprecedented government and private investments have increased demand for new skills and opportunities for young professionals, the size of the rail industry’s workforce is set to shrink, not grow, creating a fast-developing workforce gap in the industry.

In May 2018, the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) engaged BIS Oxford Economics to conduct a skills analysis of the rail sector over the next decade.

The report indicated that over 20 per cent of the existing workforce – approximately 40,000 workers out of 200,000 – were likely to retire by 2028.

By this time, the total workforce gap for rail operations and maintenance is expected to rise to 12,300 workers, or approximately 22 per cent of the available workforce.

For Danny Broad, former CEO and newly-appointed Chair of ARA, it’s clear the solution lies in rail’s future leaders.

“We need to bring a much younger, more diverse workforce on board – not only attract them, but retain them long term,” Mr Broad said.

Concurrently, the rapid pace of technological advances has increased demand for workers with the most up-to-date training.

For Mr Broad, fresh graduates “will bring a lot of the new technology skills that they’re learning at school and university that no one in the industry actually knows about.

And by the time they’re in the industry for three or four years, new technologies will arrive, so continual updating of skills and knowledge will be needed”.

Leading from the top, building from the bottom

For its part, the ARA is working hard to provide resources, events and career development opportunities for current and future young rail professionals.

It launched the Young Leaders Advisory Board (Y-LAB) in 2019 to give young rail professionals an opportunity to influence decisions by the ARA Board. The ARA Future Leaders Program brings emerging leaders together and develops their skills through group projects.

Professional pitching competitions give the younger generation a platform to present their ideas and the ARA allows finalists to pitch at major conferences such as AusRail. Young professionals can also apply for numerous scholarships and paid travel opportunities.

Since 2017, the ARA has also joined forces with its member partners to hold Young Rail Professional Forums. By combining a panel session of guest speakers with informal networking drinks, the forums are designed to spark debate, stoke curiosity and foster communication across all levels and areas of expertise.

And it’s working; more than 200 young professionals gathered at the latest forum, held on 12 December at Arup’s Sky Park office in Melbourne.

Speaking with them, the positive side of the workforce shortage became apparent – unprecedented opportunities for young professionals. Put simply, the industry is their oyster.

Huge variety of opportunities in rail

Speakers at the forum agreed that it’s the perfect time to be in rail, as professionals at all levels stand to benefit from the career and financial opportunities springing from the $150 billion pipeline of projects.

The sheer number and scale of projects is also expanding the range of jobs within the sector.

“The plus is with all of these projects, there’s such a variety of jobs that it provides all those options,” Mr Broad said. “You can work over here for a consultant for a while, and then for a contractor on a major project, and then on the conceptual design of a new project.

It’s really important for younger people to get an understanding of that broad spectrum available.”

However, this message does not seem to have reached enough young people. Forum attendees unanimously agreed that the majority of the sector’s workforce had ‘fallen into’ rail from another industry. Some estimated this figure could be as high as 80 per cent.

While these inadvertent paths into the industry will assist in its diversification of skills, they suggest that official strategies for attracting and retaining workers are falling short.

Does rail have an image issue?

Jane Gillespie, Senior Consultant, Arup

One of the issues at play might be rail’s image – the way it portrays itself as an industry, both to society and especially to potential future professionals.

Jane Gillespie, Senior Consultant at Arup and member of Y-LAB, said, “I think we’re just very inward-looking. We need to start talking about the great work we do more widely.”

For example, Miss Gillespie notes a stark contrast in how the rail industry markets itself versus medicine, which attracts a lot of young people.

Medicine asks potential students; ‘Do you want to change the world by improving people’s health?’ Whereas rail asks; ‘Do you want to study physics and maths for eight years?’.

If rail wants to grow both in numbers and diversity, rail needs to send a similar message to our young people that emphasises the positive outcomes of rail to our health, happiness and safety.

For Miss Gillespie, universities are key to solving the workforce gap, as they act as “gatekeepers” to the industry.

“Ultimately, it’s about getting that message out there: this industry is well paid, there’s lots of investment, there’s global opportunities. Rail is a dynamic industry and we need to collectively brand it that way.”

While she believes that educational institutions’ focus on STEM subjects is important, it only represents a fraction of the skills needed in rail.

“Like me, you don’t have to be technical to work in rail, I have had so many interesting experiences and I get to work with clients on projects that will shape the future of our rail network and cities,” she said.

Words of wisdom from old hands to future leaders

This urgent need to communicate the many opportunities in rail is why outreach events like the ARA’s Young Professionals Forum are important. The panellists at the December forum encouraged attendees to take advantage of exciting changes ahead.

Here is some of the key advice given at the forum to young rail professionals:

Zoe Eather, Senior Consultant, Smart Regions and Mobility, Arup, recommended young professionals seek work outside of capital cities. Projects in regional areas often see workers involved across every part of the process – a challenging but worthwhile learning experience.

Similarly, being open to overseas opportunities would bring insights from developments happening in rail globally, alongside potential job opportunities abroad.

Emilie van de Graaff, Director, Passenger and Network Innovation, Yarra Trams, emphasised the importance of participating in community consultation throughout one’s career, at any level of experience or seniority.

Understanding the nature of serving the public, young rail professionals will learn to see different points of view.

She also suggested speaking to a variety of people in rail and asking what they do, in order to better understand other roles across industry.

Nicole Stoddart, Executive General Manager, Rail and Infrastructure Delivery, Suburban Rail Loop Authority, highlighted the need for young professionals to explore the sector to find the role that suits them best.

“If you haven’t found it yet, there’s so much out there. And there is plenty of opportunity to grow throughout a project’s timeline,” she said.

Mr Broad added that with rapid changes occurring, it always pays to stay on good terms with others within the industry.

“Network, and don’t burn bridges,” he said. “One day you might be working with a contractor, and the next day they might be your customer!”

Nick Morris OAM, Accredited Accessibility Consultant and Director, Morris Goding Accessibility Consulting (MGAC), encouraged attendees to explore possibilities and push boundaries.

“Listen, experiment, fail, have a go, repeat,” he said. “And when you’re told no, ask: But why can’t I? Why can’t we?”

Ultimately, as the industry evolves, young rail professionals are faced with the challenge and the freedom to take control of their own careers.

Today more than ever, there’s no such thing as a traditional path into the industry. It’s up to each young professional to create their own.

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