Mind the skills gap: UK rail's engineering challenge
The FT's Robert Wright looks at the engineering and technology skills shortage facing Bombardier, the maintainer of Crossrail's Elizabeth line trains, at its Old Oak Common rail depot
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Crossrail is due to transform London's transport system when services start next autumn, and a critical part of the project is the trains built by Canada's Bombardier. But someone needs to keep those trains running, and Britain faces a critical shortage of the engineers and technicians required. So I've come to Bombardier's new depot at Old Oak Common in west London to find out how the company is tackling that very tricky challenge.
Oliver Holmes, who's training the staff that will keep the trains running, explains why demand for the right skills is so high and what Bombardier is doing to address the challenge.
There's a lot of investment going in the rail industry. Everybody is bringing out new fleets of trains, so demand is high. We've been very fortunate in the fact we got a lot of people from the forces. They've left the forces, and they come and join us, and they're bringing on some great, transferable skills. They're highly trained, and those skills slot right into what we require from them.
Obviously, to a lot of bystanders these trains would look pretty similar to traditional trains, but they're fairly different inside. What kind of different skills do you need to recruit to maintain a train like this?
In these trains, the technology is very advanced on them now. So a lot of people we have working on them are very good at IT. We have internet networks on the trains, and they're very good working the software, and they are good at good sort of analysis, in interpreting faults and so on. They've been able to fix them, overcome that.
Bernadette Westmoreland tells me about the multiple initiatives the company is taking to find new stuff. They include encouraging members of black and minority ethnic, or Bame communities, to come into an industry where they've historically been underrepresented.
It's really important to us as an organisation. There's lots of statistics that show diverse organisations perform better, and we are approaching that through a number of different routes. We're engaging with a number of social partners to provide work placement opportunities, CV mentoring, et cetera, to give people an experience of rail and the different careers within rail.
We're using our graduate and apprenticeship programmes to increase the diverse talent pools that we are pulling from. So we're delighted that we have over 20 per cent Bame in our graduate and apprentice pools, and around 20 per cent female as well in our graduate pool, which has been a real step change for us.
Brad Grey, previously an engineer in heavy trucks and now training is a maintenance assistant, illustrates how Bombardier is trying to find people with the right transferable skills to retrain.
That's quite a culture shock, yeah, to actually find out how much you can read off of a train just by a laptop, if you know what I mean? And faults-wise.
Are you pleased you made the switch?
Yeah, 100 per cent. Yeah
What's better about it?
Well, this is a really exciting project, to start with. Obviously, living in the area myself, the whole project itself, when it's running, will make a difference to my life, to my girlfriend's life, people who we know. So that side of things is exciting for me, the fact that when this is successful, it will change the whole of the area, really.
It's clear that the UK generally, and the rail industry in particular, still face a big skills gap. Companies like Bombardier are reacting by training some people, retraining others, and reaching out to new groups. Nobody is pretending the problem has been solved, but the steps that are being taken are doing a great deal to ensure that these trains should be ready next year to whisk millions of passengers across central London.