UK rail sector facing extreme skills shortage, industry body says

The UK’s rail sector faces “serious systemic issues” with regards to skills shortages that escalate significantly over the next five years without swift action, the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) has said.

With huge projects under way including Crossrail and High Speed 2 (HS2), alongside the reveal of the National Infrastructure Strategy later this week, the shortage could have significant impacts on the industry when it needs skilled employees the most.

The research found that an ageing workforce has led the UK’s rail sector to increasingly rely on overseas and ‘third-tier’ workers. It also said that the rail sector will lose “huge numbers” of skilled workers over the next few years.

With 28 per cent of workers in the industry aged over 50, some 15,000 workers could be due to retire by 2025. Meanwhile, Brexit is set to exacerbate this issue, potentially reducing access to overseas workers.

From 2016 to 2018, the proportion of EU workers in the rail sector dropped from 17 to 15 per cent and this declining trend is expected to continue.

It is estimated that between 7,000 and 12,000 additional people will be required every year by the industry over the next five to ten years with peak demand expected around 2025.

NSAR has urged the sector to begin recruiting now so that they have the relevant skills and experience to meet future demand.

The report also highlights issues around gender and BAME backgrounds such as the fact that just 16 per cent of the current rail workforce is female and only 27 per cent of BAME people would consider working in rail, compared to 32 per cent of white people.

NSAR CEO Neil Robertson said: “By hiring people from different backgrounds and regions and providing them with quality skills and career progression, we can ensure that these infrastructure projects not only create jobs, but also promote positive socioeconomic change.”

The rail sector has had a rough year with the Covid-19 pandemic leading to the lowest passenger numbers seen on the network since the Victorian era.

This has forced the Government to institute multi-billion-pound bailouts for train companies around the UK.

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