By The Australasian Railway Association (ARA)

While skills shortages are not new in rail, the convergence of challenges and threats to workforce capability being currently experienced means this will be a particularly critical issue for the industry over the next three years.

The recent Jobs and Skills Summit provided a timely opportunity to discuss the current skills challenges gripping our nation. The Australasian Railway Association’s (ARA) 2022 Building Australian Rail Skills for the Future report confirmed expected workforce gaps of up to 70,000 skilled workers by 2023.

Anecdotally, from speaking to ARA members, the sector is experiencing role shortages ranging from 30 to 35 per cent. Those figures are higher in key roles, such as signalling. The shortages are starker in remote areas like the Pilbara. The range of roles in acute shortage across the rail sector in the short and medium term is extensive, including train drivers and controllers, technicians in signalling, electrical and communications, maintenance workers, engineers, as well as trainers and assessors.

Urgent action is needed to address this crisis, which is set to worsen over the next three years.

How do we combat skills shortages?

Infrastructure Australia’s 2021 Infrastructure Market Capacity report found that by 2023, skills demand will be 48 per cent higher than supply, with the transport infrastructure sector set to be one of the hardest hit. The report’s findings align closely with the ARA’s own 2018 Rail Skills Capability Study.

These challenges have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and local and international border closures. Beyond the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic, increasing investment in much-needed rail infrastructure is adding to the existing skills shortages as new rail infrastructure, rolling stock and operations expand.

Research into the rail supply chain released by the ARA in 2021 found that, based on an analysis of existing rail projects, future needs and funding availability, there is approximately $155 billion in new rail construction activity planned over the next 15 years, with 87 per cent of this procured by the public sector.

With the majority of investments often across concurrent projects in the same or adjacent jurisdictions, competition for skills will continue to be significant. The current approach to government infrastructure investment is largely uncoordinated, either within or across governments. This lack of coordination impacts the market’s ability to respond and the availability of a sufficiently skilled workforce to meet demand.

Skills gaps are also growing, largely because of increasing digitisation, with emerging technologies that require new skills in areas including rail signalling, autonomous and remotely operated rail vehicles and operating or driving rail vehicles. This means the industry will need to attract a new and different workforce, competing with other industries seeking similar talent.

Improved promotion of careers available in rail, and of the industry itself, will be key to achieving this goal. This also provides the industry with an unprecedented opportunity to attract a workforce that better reflects the composition of Australian society.

New positions require new courses

A major barrier to being able to attract engineers, project managers and other professionals from external industries or graduates direct from universities into rail, has been the lack of appropriate courses to support their transition into rail. There have been many attempts to address the shortfall.

Historically, rail training has been delivered in large publicly owned enterprises such as Queensland Rail and Sydney Trains. This enterprise-based training is not available to the wider community and therefore does not contribute to attracting and increasing the numbers of people seeking to join the rail industry. There are still very few pathways that are well defined, leading to a role in rail, for those not yet in the industry.

The current Industry Reference Committee structures in the rail area have built many courses and had them accredited, but very few are  completed by people in the rail industry. Often this is because there are no TAFE or other Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) who have the trainers who meet the criteria to deliver the courses.

In the university sector, at the undergraduate level, there are no courses related directly to rail, with one exception; a Diploma in Rail Track Engineering delivered by the University of Tasmania. To add to this, each jurisdiction and rail infrastructure manager also has differing requirements for training courses that lead to recognition of the competencies held by workers, contributing to significant barriers to rail employment mobility.

This means that at a time when we have significant skills shortages, the industry is faced with large productivity losses by having workers duplicate training every time they operate in a different jurisdiction.

Getting proactive on training programs

The ARA is pleased to see a key outcome from the Jobs and Skills Summit was a commitment of an additional $1 billion in joint Federal-State funding for fee-free TAFE in 2023 and accelerated delivery of 465,000 fee-free TAFE places. The TAFE sector has always supported rail in the training of tradespeople, but there has not been a nationally consistent approach for other roles.

We hope with this recent announcement, the needs of large industry sectors such as rail can be considered, so we can develop and deliver sustainable national training programs that ensure the rail industry has access to skilled workers.

We were also pleased to see an additional commitment to improving access to jobs and pathways for women, First Nations people, regional Australians and culturally and linguistically diverse people, as well as increasing the permanent migration ceiling to 195,000 in 2022-23 to help ease widespread workforce shortages.

Increasing diversity in the rail sector will be crucial to growing our sector. Attracting and recruiting women is one part of the equation. Rail companies must also put in the work to retain them.

Five years after graduating, men with a STEM qualification are almost twice as likely (1.8 times) to be working in a STEM job compared to their women peers. The ARA will continue to advocate for practical ways the Federal and State Governments can support developing the skills of a diverse rail workforce of the future.

However, we cannot just rely on the government alone. It is up to the ARA and wider industry to be proactive on those issues that we can solve ourselves. The rail industry sets itself hurdles due to the vagaries of federation. National harmonisation must be the priority, as this is a fundamental issue impacting the skills of our workforce.

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