Industry survey finds engineers are being deterred from railway careers due to requirements for early specialisation

Classification Societies, Education and Training, HR — By on March 13, 2012 at 11:58 PM

More than 80% of respondents say current training and development practices can also limit career paths

The present training and development programme for railway engineers encourages specialisation too early, a feature which is likely to limit career paths and could be deterring new entrants, according to a survey of professional engineers from the industry. This is the overwhelming view of Chartered Engineers and IMechE Associate member engineers revealed by a survey of the future demand for training and skills conducted in December last year by Lloyd’s Register and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).

“Young people are attracted to professions that do not appear to restrict choice and variety, so we need to demonstrate how a career in the railways offers a solid technical grounding with plenty of opportunities to follow specialist interests later as their experience develops, “ said John Stansfeld, Transportation Director, Lloyd’s Register. “We must challenge the perception that engineers are ‘locked in’ to one discipline for life.”

The survey also found strong support for training and qualifications to move away from present internal, self-accredited standards towards a regime that would place more emphasis on giving new engineering recruits a broader, more systems-focused approach.

“We need to encourage more people to pursue railway engineering careers and the fact that people are forced to specialise so early could deter some of the best engineering talent, “ said Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. “Government and industry need to work together to find ways to allow people to specialise later in their careers.”   

The key findings from the survey were:

• More than 80% of respondents agreed that current training and development encourages specialisation too early, a feature which can limit career paths and deter new entrants

• The industry would be well counselled to break down ‘silos’ between disciplines and focus on providing new recruits with a wider level of knowledge and better understating of system interfaces before they explore specialist interests

• More than 70% respondents felt that, while reducing costs and increasing capacity will continue to preoccupy boardrooms, the skills in highest demand during the next 10 years will relate to energy efficiency

• Future engineering leaders will need to demonstrate a more enterprising and innovative approach, and a willingness to challenge current practices

Stansfeld commented:

“Listening to today’s rail engineers, they appear to agree that a systems-based approach to training will not only be more attractive to recruits, it will offer far greater benefits to the industry than keeping disciplines at arms length.

“At the same time, we need to anticipate and respond to future skills demand, such as in energy efficiency. Whilst taking positive steps to ensure a strong supply of rail engineering expertise, we must be ready to meet tomorrow’s challenges.”

Gil Howarth, Chief Executive of the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering said: “We welcome this initiative and the results of the survey are remarkably consistent with the views expressed to us. As part of our campaign to promote railway engineering in schools, last summer together with The Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust, we jointly sponsored a four-day residential course in Railway Systems Engineering at the University of Birmingham for forty 16 & 17-year-old students. This proved to be very popular and will now be an annual event. “A systems-engineering approach will be essential to the implementation of the European Rail Traffic Management System across the network over the next 20 to 30 years, with train control moving from line-side signals to in-cab.”

Survey background

Most countries have invested in academies and industry partnerships to address concerns about the shortage of future railway engineers.

So while the issue of skills supply has started to be resolved, questions remain about the skills and attributes that employers will require from tomorrow’s engineers and what reforms the industry needs to introduce in its training.

IMechE, in collaboration with Lloyd’s Register, canvassed rail engineers to ask: where the industry is headed; how that should affect the decisions of new entrants looking to develop long-term careers in rail; and whether the industry’s approach to training and qualifications ensured an adequate supply of skills to meet future demand.

The findings were compiled from 220 responses to an e-survey sent out by ImechE to members in early December.

Responses 

Skills and attributes of tomorrow’s engineers Respondents were asked which disciplines they felt would have the highest demand for skills in the next 10 years. Of the categories listed, energy efficiency returned the highest score, with more than 71% citing this as the main area where employees will be searching for talent. That was followed by reliability, accessibility and maintainability, and safety skills.

Top 5 by response:

  • Energy efficiency        71%
  • Reliability, availability, maintainability, serviceability (RAMS)  56%
  • Safety         52%
  • Track replacement       51%
  • Rolling stock modification      48%

In terms of individual attributes, today’s engineers felt that, in future, employers will prize candidates who can demonstrate an innovative approach to their work and those who possess a broad range of engineering skills, rather than specialist, niche skills.

Highest scoring attributes were:

  • Willingness to challenge convention  52%
  • An enterprising and innovative nature  51%

Lowest scoring

  • Niche specialist engineering skills  13%
  • IT skills      4%
  • Content to travel abroad for work  3%

Training provision 

The following statements were put to respondents; below are the results and a selection of comments:

Statement 1: The rail industry relies too much on internal, self-accredited training and standards rather than more generic qualifications to measure competence. This restricts recruitment of skilled candidates from other fields. It should be more open to skills brought in from other engineering disciplines.

  • Strongly Agree     17%
  • Agree      41%
  • No opinion     17%
  • Disagree     30%
  • Strongly disagree    3%

“I agree 100%. There is a generation of engineers coming through who memorise the standards and that is how they go about their work, with little knowledge of the principles the standards are trying to enforce, and as a result [they have] no flexibility in dealing with conflicts that arise.” Associate, IMechE

“Rail Engineers need to accept that there is more than one way of doing things; very conservative.” Chartered, IMechE

“Currently, it is still a badge of honour to have worked in the railway for 40 years. Engineers from other industries do not appear to be welcomed into the railway without specific railway engineering experience.” Chartered, IMechE

“The rail industry is a specific discipline and should therefore tailor its training requirements accordingly.”  Associate, IMechE “The rail industry confuses competence with experience. We need competent people and experience is only valid where it supports the development of competence.” Fellow, IMechE

Statement 2: Qualifications within the rail industry are too ‘national’ in their approach. This will not adequately serve an industry that is likely to become increasingly international, with increases in cross-border operations and operators submitting tenders in other countries. It should work towards international qualifications, standards and certificates for staff at all levels.

  • Strongly Agree     17%
  • Agree      43%
  • No opinion     18%
  • Disagree     20%
  • Strongly disagree    2%

“The need for UK national qualification/certification strengthens a closed-shop attitude to the application of sorely needed overseas technology and skills within the UK.” Chartered, IMechE

“The rail industry should stop believing that only rail qualifications matter. It doesn’t matter whether they’re national or international; it’s still a closed shop.” Fellow, IMechE

“[This] could be a good approach, probably more for rolling stock than infrastructure. There are still major infrastructure differences.” Chartered, IMechE

“I am not aware of too many rail-industry specific ‘qualifications’; [the] number of years served seems to be the only qualification that matters in the industry.” Chartered, IMechE

Statement 3: From the outset, training and development encourages specialisation within the workforce, leading to narrow career paths that prohibit skills transfer and deter new entrants. Tomorrow’s engineers will benefit from an emphasis on developing a wider level of knowledge from an earlier stage of their careers.

  • Strongly Agree     32%
  • Agree      50%
  • No opinion     8%
  • Disagree     8%
  • Strongly disagree    3%

“All of tomorrow’s engineers initially will need a wide level of knowledge (e.g., in the legislative and approvals regimes). This will be of immense benefit to their later careers.” Fellow, IMechE

“This is something I can’t agree with enough, as failure to perceive the railway as an integrated whole, rather than separate sub-systems, is the root of many present problems.” Associate, IMechE

“Personal experience has shown that wide-ranging experience in the general principles that underlie railway success are what my business finds the most in demand and difficult to obtain.” Associate, IMechE

“Railways are systems comprising rolling stock, infrastructure, signalling, comms, etc; training future engineers to take a similarly system-wide view will be of great benefit to the Industry as a whole.” Chartered, IMechE

“There is a place for both. Without specialists, there would not be the innovation required to continually improve; without generalists, the specialist work would happen in silos and not be connected in a coherent strategy.” Associate, IMechE

Notes:

Members of the Lloyd’s Register Group provide independent assurance to companies operating high-risk, capital-intensive assets in the energy and transportation sectors. We enhance the safety of life, property and the environment by helping our clients to ensure the quality construction and operation of critical infrastructure. The Group comprises charities and non-charitable entities, with the latter supporting the charities in their main goal.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers was established in 1847 and has some of the world’s greatest engineers in its history books. It currently has over 100, 000 members, representing mechanical engineers involved in a diversity of fields such as the automotive, rail, aerospace, medical, power and construction industries.

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