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Reaching out to young talent

22 Dec 2008

UK: We have remarked before about skills shortages in the rail sector, with operators and suppliers from Australia to Europe and North America voicing concerns about the age profile of their technicians and the lack of suitable recruits. This is particularly marked where productivity improvements in the 1980s and 1990s left a bulge of workers who are now rapidly approaching retirement.

So we were greatly heartened by a new initiative in the UK, where a group of companies led by Bombardier have teamed up with the Prince’s Trust to get young people interested in a railway career. Bombardier is a Patron of the Trust, which was set up by the Prince of Wales in 1976 to find work for disadvantaged young people. The Trust runs ‘get into’ programmes with various industry sectors, including construction and hospitality, and sees rail as a natural extension of this work.

‘We all recognise there is a growing skills shortage in the rail industry’, said Bombardier UK Chairman Colin Walton, ‘but there are a lot of kids out there. This project is all about getting young people into railways’. Following initial discussions at the Derby & Derbyshire Rail Forum, 10 young people were put through a six-week taster course in railway engineering and operating skills, running until mid-December. Other companies offering support and resources included East Midlands Trains, Network Rail, Signal House Group, and Collis Engineering.

The course was a pilot for a wider campaign which was formally launched at the London Transport Museum on December 2. Prince’s Trust Director of Fundraising Julian Burrell said there were around 1·5 million young people in the UK between 16 and 25 who were not in employment, education or training, and the Trust is working with around 40 000 per year. Of those who attended ‘get into’ courses, around 75% ended up being offered a full-time job.

There were 34 applicants for the course, which offered tasters of mechanical engineering and construction, trackside maintenance and on-train operations, and Walton said there was a ‘huge waiting list’ of potential candidates. Many companies had expressed interest in participating as the campaign is rolled out, but he emphasised that it was not just about money. The programme needed companies to offer placements, resources and mentoring, together with long-term job opportunities. Prince’s Trust Chief Executive Martina Milburn said the programme also depended on finding good mentors, adding that finding the right person ‘to unlock that spark’ was key to motivating individual trainees.

The founder of engineering company LNWR, Pete Waterman, told the assembled guests that he had been an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust for a long time, and it was ‘an amazing organisation’. Recalling that he had also left school with no qualifications, he said that ‘if you treat kids with respect and give them enthusiasm, they are really good employees’. Adding that he was ‘passionate about engineering’, Waterman revealed that he had ‘put £900 000 of my own money into training young people in Crewe to be engineers.’