Bombardier’s efforts in Australia to grow and maintain diversity within its workforce are at the core of what makes a successful rail business today.
In late September, a milestone was reached at Bombardier Transportation Australia. The date marked 12 months since the launch of the Women’s Professional Network (WPN), an internal empowerment group for the women employed at Bombardier’s sites around Australia. To mark the occasion, a photo taken earlier in 2020 was published on the manufacturer’s social media sites showing the Melbourne base WPN members, and a few male staff, standing in front of a newly built VLocity train set at the manufacturer’s Dandenong facility.
Demonstrating the commitment to diversity from the top down, standing at the front of the group were Victoria’s Minister for Women and Prevention of Family Violence, Gabrielle Williams, Australasian Railway Association (ARA) CEO Caroline Wilkie, ARA Chair Danny Broad, CEO of the St Kilda Gatehouse, Stacey Aslangul, and president of Bombardier Transportation Australia and New Zealand Wendy McMillan.
“Diversity has many faces but the WPN is a shining example of grass roots work that is being done in our business to help lift our female colleagues in their work with Bombardier Transportation,” McMillan said to acknowledge the project’s milestone.
The significance of having a leader like McMillan is not lost on Rahul Kumar, head of human resources Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia at Bombardier.
“It starts from the top. Most of the diversity and inclusion initiatives have to be top driven, so the leadership buy in is key for us and we’re very lucky to have Wendy as president.”
Kumar has been part of a core team that has been leading a push on diversity and inclusion at Bombardier in Australia. Avoiding large, complex projects that lose momentum and fail to be implemented, Kumar has focused on grassroots initiatives such as the WPN that can be sustained over a long period.
“If we’re going to be focussing on diversity, let’s bring women together. Most of the work is done outside of HR by testing and commissioning engineer Kamakshi Rambhatla. What started as just an effort of getting women together has now resulted in mentoring programs, we’ve had workshops being run by local speakers and we’ve had our local member for Dandenong and the Minister for Women, Minister for Prevention of Family Violence and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gabrielle Williams come and address them.”
In the 12 months since its launch the WPN has not only improved the careers of those involved and connected women from Bombardier’s sites across Australia but has inspired a movement of sorts with other WPNs being born in Southeast Asia and India. Today, over 20 mentoring groups run under the WPN banner, and an award and recognition program highlights those who have gone above and beyond.
“We now get 20-30 nominations consistently every month,” said Kumar. “At the start, we had to go and ask, ‘Do you want to nominate someone?’ Now it’s changing from a pull to a push system.”
While the program has driven engagement internally, Kumar is aware of the challenges of attracting not only women, but young people, and people from a variety of cultural backgrounds to the rail industry. However, this has not dissuaded Kumar from trying.
“Everyone keeps telling us we don’t have female graduates, we can’t find females in shop floor roles, we can’t find tradeswomen. It’s a reality too, and it’s not easy to find if you advertise, but we said, ‘Are we going to stop at this problem or are we going to find a way?’”
In addition to the traditional pathways into a manufacturing career such as apprenticeships and graduate programs that Bombardier offers, development plans were put in place to provide pathways for those who maybe not have been able to access the same training and education opportunities or who did not come from a traditional rail background.
One of these was TRANSIT. Set up by the Level Crossing Removal Authority (LXRA), the initiative highlights potential rail careers to those from other sectors that were in decline, in particular the automotive sector. Also, in collaboration with LXRA, Bombardier partnered on GROW, which seeks to introduce people from marginalised or disadvantaged backgrounds – including asylum seekers, refugees and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – to training and employment opportunities in the transport and construction industries. A third program that Kumar invested in is the Overseas-Qualified Professionals program, run by Melbourne Polytechnic, which provides a pathway for those with international qualifications to have their training recognised in Australia.
“In a conventional world, individuals from these programs would have found it difficult to get through because they either didn’t have the skills, the background, or the education,” said Kumar. “We have broken those barriers; they prove themselves during internship programs and they considered against any open position in Bombardier.
“We focused on these unconventional ways of getting talent in and once they’re in, then we make sure that they have a buddy and a mentor to put them on the journey.” Most of our OQP employees are doing a fantastic job, said Kumar.
These approaches are leading to success at Bombardier, with the female workforce introduced to manufacturing roles working on the Dandenong shop floor, another first in Bombardier’s long history at the site. There are six women working in various roles currently, and recently, two more female electricians have been selected to join the manufacturing workforce. A similar very structured approach is being followed in our services site in West Melbourne, where we now have four female employees in shop floor roles.
“Now we are starting to see cycles building, so all those efforts now are seeing fruition after a two-year journey,” said Kumar.
A now common element of corporate reporting is metrics which measure diversity. Often measured at the board level, these metrics can also be across a company as a whole. For Bombardier, the company globally tracks the number of women in management roles.
Beneath these headline figures, Kumar points out, is a focus on ensuring there is a pipeline of diverse expertise, and not only based on gender. In addition, diversity is not always captured in clear percentage figures.
“What we have done locally is look at how many women we have in succession plans to leadership because we always need to invest and ask if we have that pipeline of talent. Then we also look at diverse nationalities. This is a hard one to track in a place like Australia. For example, I myself came from India and I moved here in 2004. So, when I put my application down now what do I call myself, an Australian with an Indian background? I would not because I have got an Australian passport, I am Australian. We have done informal mapping, and in Dandenong itself we have over 30 different nationalities represented in some shape or form.”
Another focus is ensuring that the diversity is spread throughout the business, and not only in roles that are traditionally associated with a gender or cultural background.
“Sometimes there are good numbers on diversity but that 10 per cent or 20 per cent figure is skewed because a chunk of it is getting picked up by these traditional functions. In Australia, we are focusing on where we struggle, and that is in what we call conventional rail roles, and that’s building trains, maintaining them and also rail signalling,” said Kumar.
The final area that goes beyond a simple statistic is the retention rate. A diverse hiring policy is no use if the staff come and go through a revolving door, so Bombardier is looking closely at the reasons for a person leaving the organisation to see where it can do better.
“Most people will say I’m going to a new company for career progression but why could we not provide those avenues internally? We will track that to gather that information and then try and make some initiatives to bridge those gaps,” said Kumar.
THE VALUE OF A DIVERSE ORGANISATION
While academic research has proven that diverse organisations are more productive and profitable, as Kumar points out, for an organisation like Bombardier the value of inclusion is self-evident. With products and services operating in over 60 countries and approximately 36,000 employees, working across cultural boundaries is essential.
“Having a workforce that’s inclusive is the cornerstone of delivering projects, that’s how we survive.”
For example, the high capacity signalling system for the Metro Tunnel Project in Melbourne that Bombardier is delivering as part of the Rail Systems Alliance, brings together Australia and Thailand based teams along with other sites around the world. Similarly, the locally designed New Generation Rollingstock for the South East Queensland network are a collaboration between Bombardier teams in Australia and India.
“If we are not a diverse and inclusive organisation, we will start to see it in our delivery, in our products in the way they’re made and developed,” said Kumar.
In 2021, Bombardier will be doubling down on these efforts in Australia with the introduction of a hiring process that is blind to gender, sexuality, religion, marital status, and age, to remove any forms of unconscious bias.
“We are almost ready with a standard format,” said Kumar. “When CVs come in, they come in all fancy shapes and forms, some have got a vision statement, some have got objectives, so we’re going to remove that. We’re going to standardise our format. We’re going to say if someone is interested in Bombardier we want you to put your inputs into these broad categories and we don’t want your name, we don’t want your sexual orientation, religious beliefs, whether you’re married or not, your date of birth and also any reference to your gender.”
While such company-wide efforts are making a difference, as Kumar points out, there are stories every day that showcase why it is always important to keep a focus on diversity and inclusion within rail.
“In 2019, one of the graduates from the GROW community was telling me that he was the first in line from his whole family to ever get into a professional job. He had a double degree in engineering but was working part time as a home removalist. There was a graduate position coming up and I got a call from our LXRA contact saying you should have a look at this young engineering graduate. I said, ‘Not a problem, we will put him through the process.’ Now that guy is doing a fantastic job based in our West Melbourne site.”