In the last five years, 20,000 jobs have been created in the rail industry. With tens of thousands more jobs to come, new approaches to attracting and training staff will be essential for the rail sector.
With more projects coming online in 2021, the rail industry is entering genuine boom times. The projected activity in rail construction over the next five years is set to be more than double what we saw at the height of the mining boom.
That kind of scale presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to harness the skills, knowledge and insight needed to position Australian rail as global experts for years to come.
The challenge will be making the most of this opportunity at a time when skills shortages are already biting the industry.
The Australasian Railway Association’s (ARA) 2018 skills capability study found significant shortages were looming across key specialist roles such as project management, engineering and technical specialists.
At the time, the ARA called for urgent action to address the issue.
That need has only been exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, with restrictions making it harder to move from project to project to deliver specialist services.
Some progress has been made, with skills development being made a key focus of the National Rail Action Plan in recent years.
As part of my role on the skills development working group, I have seen the real commitment and drive within the industry to ensure we have a strong pipeline of the very best talent to support our future.
The rise of new projects has seen 20,000 new jobs created in the industry over a five year period, showing that some traction has been made with rising demand in the industry.
But for that growth to really turn the dial and have an impact over the long term, the need to invest in and mentor emerging talent is still particularly acute.
The solution must be both short term and long term.
In the short term, simple changes to remove state based local content requirements could support the better use of talent that exists within the market already.
By unlocking manufacturing and rail supply businesses from the rigidity that comes with these arbitrary requirements, more could be invested in cultivating talent, kickstarting new careers and fostering the rail leaders of tomorrow.
A greater national focus in these areas will have the added benefit of driving costs down and freeing up more opportunities for innovation and technological advancement as new projects are delivered.
That will not only be a win for the industry and project outcomes but will make working in rail that much more appealing for those looking to make a mark in their own careers.
There is also an immediate need to focus on bringing more school leavers and graduates into the industry while demand in the industry is high.
The people that start their careers supporting the growth we are to see over the coming years will be the people that lead the industry for decades to come.
The ARA is working with industry and educators to ensure rail operators, contractors and suppliers can attract and retain the very best talent emerging from our schools and universities to make sure we make the most of the significant demand that exists within rail at the moment.
Giving students a clear view of the pathway to a career in rail – from school, to further education and beyond – is critical.
Looking further ahead, we will need to make sure emerging rail professionals are seeing the benefits of a long-term career in the industry, as well as the appeal of pursuing the specialist areas we will need most in the future.
Highlighting the obvious benefits of working in rail will be key to achieving this – and there are many benefits that will appeal to those new to the industry.
As borders open back up again in the coming years, those who have grounded their early career in the major projects Australia and New Zealand have underway will have the knowledge and insight to take them to work on exciting projects all over the world.
It is the ideal training ground for those looking to lay the foundations for a career that can take them anywhere they choose over the course of a rich and varied working life.
The ARA’s Young Leaders Advisory Board has also confirmed the broad appeal of working in rail among young people as
a result of the contribution it makes to communities and economies.
Rail will have an increasing role to play in the sustainable development of our cities and towns as we strive to create connected, environmentally responsible communities that support our continued prosperity while respecting the need to respond to the climate challenges of our time.
Being part of that at this critical juncture enables people working in rail to make a genuine difference to the urban spaces the next generation will inherit.