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Why diversity matters for the railway of the future

Ben Dunlop | 02 Aug 2016 | Comments

At Atkins, we strongly believe that diversity is at the heart of achieving business success and shaping the future of transportation.

We value the depth of ideas and breadth of experience that recruiting new team members from many different backgrounds brings to our creativity, decision-making, ability to build strong client relationships and delivery capability. At Atkins, when we talk about diversity, we really mean inclusion, and we work hard to be representative of the society in which we live.  To design and implement the best possible solutions for our clients and to enable them to enhance the passenger experience, as a business we have to be able to speak for the needs and concerns of people in the UK.

Our people are a mirror for the world outside our offices: they come from a range of socio-economic background, educational experiences, genders and sexual orientations; they are global citizens and understanding what’s important for them makes our business better.

So, why is diversity important to the future of rail?  Record investment in the industry over recent years and the advent of schemes such as High Speed 2, Digital Railway and the Northern Powerhouse is creating enormous demand for skilled engineers.

It has been estimated that engineering companies will need to recruit around 56,000 engineering technicians per year between 2012 and 2022 to cover demand and embed the skills of the future.  Apprentices help to meet this demand, but there is currently an annual shortfall of 30,000.  (It is worth noting that salary expectations are good too, with the average salary in 2014 for engineering technicians significantly higher than the UK mean wage.)

As an industry, if we are going to adequately respond to the challenges catalysed by the unprecedented number of passengers travelling on our railway and the forecast growth in capacity, then bringing in new talent is a business-critical issue.

Today, there are 1.7billion passenger journeys made every year, which is a 34% increase in the number of annual journeys when compared to five years ago.  This is more than double the figure for 20 years ago. We need to cast our net wider as an industry and appeal to budding engineers and STEM enthusiasts.  The industry needs to dispel preconceptions and stereotypes about what it means to work in rail; after all, the engineer of tomorrow (and increasingly today) is far more likely to work using digital tools and a laptop, than in overalls and with spanners.

It must also be recognised that the UK railway in 2016 offers a fantastic array of opportunities.  Construction is currently underway on the new High Speed Rail colleges in Doncaster and Birmingham, the Crossrail Tunnelling Academy is going from strength to strength and Alstom is forging ahead with plans to open a new training facility in Widnes.  The sector has no choice but to get smart in line with market forces.

Individual organisations are offering dynamic apprenticeship, graduate and industry engagement initiatives in an attempt to lure the best candidates.  This move represents a seismic shift in terms of recruitment in rail and reflects the awareness that there is currently a shortage of candidates.

The industry cannot afford to be half-hearted; a business is only ever as good as its people.  The onus is now on the rail sector to attract the best school, college and university leavers into rail and to provide them with opportunities for professional development that mean they are retained within the industry.

Conversely, part of the appeal of a good grounding in rail engineering is its potential application to other industries: rail opens, rather than closes doors.  This has to appeal to young people who don’t want to limit their options early in their career.

The historic move to transition parts of the UK network from a conventional to an IP-networked railway means that the skills of the future will not be purely hardware-focused.  Software engineers who can operate and devise centralised digital control systems will be in huge demand and experience unprecedented opportunity.

So, what is Atkins doing to help attract and retain the next generation of engineers who will shape the future of transportation?  As a business, we are proud to have over 500 STEM ambassadors.  In the financial year 2015/6, Atkins’ people participated in 350+ school-based outreach activities reaching over 5,000 students. 
There are currently over 240 apprentices being trained at Atkins.  Atkins is a committed member of the 5% club, and pleased to be surpassing this target. 

The UK business takes on 300 new graduates a year, and has been shortlisted by TARGETjobs as the most popular graduate recruiter in the construction, civil engineering and surveying sector for 2016.

The business is proud to be aligned to WISE’s 10 steps to promote gender diversity and sponsored the Design category at this year’s STEM awards.  Atkins continues to work with the Royal Academy of Engineering to develop engineering talent.

To learn more about why these initiatives are important, watch our short film telling the story of our apprentices and graduates experiences of Rail Week and why they recommend working in rail.