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How can we get more young people into rail?

How can we get more young people into rail?

Rail Partners - How can we get more young people into rail?
22 September 2023
Mark Gaynor, director of operator services

It’s that time of year again when up and down the country students take part in Freshers activities as they start the new university term. The proportion of students going into higher education fell in 2022 to 37.5% from 38.2% the previous year. University, of course, isn’t the only avenue for a successful career, there are options such as ‘earn as you learn’ apprenticeships too.

A big question for me is, how can we encourage young people to consider opportunities in the rail industry when they’re making their education choices and when they leave school or university?  And linked to this, how do we promote the many and varied career choices in rail so that young people choose us rather than other sectors?

On this latter point, if you or I asked a typical school or university leaver to name some jobs in the rail industry, how do you think they would answer?  From my experience, I suspect they’d mention the more visible roles like train drivers, guards, track workers and station staff, but struggle to identify many more beyond those. 

A related challenge is changing perceptions of our industry. This isn’t easy at the moment, given all the negative press around strikes and industrial relations. And the typical photos we use when discussing rail careers which show people in high-vis clothing working on the track in all weathers aren’t helpful either! But we actually have a great story to tell. Rail is an essential part of the country’s transition to a low carbon economy. Our extensive network connects communities across the country providing access to jobs, services, friends and family and plays a vital role in transporting freight. We’re also increasingly becoming a high-tech industry with widespread use of digital/software systems, automation, new materials and innovative sensor technologies. 

So, in a large and complex industry employing 240,000 people covering the supply chain and the operation of the rail network, we require talent across a wide spectrum of disciplines: cyber security, decarbonisation, digital marketing, architecture, customer support, finance and systems engineering to name just a few.  And we also need people who can bring diverse perspectives to the many and varied challenges the railway faces: encouraging more people to use our services, raising skills and productivity, improving the customer experience and reducing our environmental footprint.

Fortunately, the creation of Routes into Rail (routesintorail.org) has provided a one-stop-shop to find out about career opportunities in the industry as well as details of graduate and apprenticeship schemes. It includes case studies of how various young people started their careers in rail and the advice they would give to others considering joining the industry. It’s well worth a look.

Within Rail Partners, we are playing our part too by collaborating with train operators and industry skills bodies to tackle the skills challenges we face through apprenticeships and upskilling initiatives. And we’re also working to improve how we promote rail career opportunities within train operators to young people, women and diverse communities. For example, at our recent traincrew conference, held jointly with the Rail Delivery Group, we invited South Western Railway to provide details of their fantastic 'Have a Go' days to encourage more women to become train drivers by giving them the chance to try out a simulator.

I remain optimistic about rail’s attractiveness as a career choice.  We offer well-paid and varied jobs in an industry that’s critical to our country’s economic and environmental success. As an industry, let’s get better at promoting the fantastic opportunities on offer.

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