Friday 25th Sep, 2020

Filling the gap: overcoming the rail industry skills shortage

The challenge of addressing the rail industry’s skills gap were a topic of discussion at a recent Australian Industry Standards (AIS) forum in September.

Federal and state governments across Australia have collectively committed $100 billion over the next 12 years to infrastructure projects to ensure the nation’s rail networks can bear the weight of a steadily expanding population and the concomitant increase in demand for rail services.

Large-scale projects already underway or in planning will require a sizeable skilled workforce to bring them into being.

But the size of the rail workforce in Australia is much the same as it was a decade ago, and is growing older.

In the decade between 2006 and 2016, the number of workers under 40 fell 3 per cent, and the number over 40 rose by 1.4 per cent. Currently, only 11 per cent of the workforce is under 30.

Speaking at the AIS skills forum in Sydney, then managing director of TAFE NSW, Jon Black, said the perception TAFE had lesser “esteem” than university was something that had to be addressed.

“We need to talk about promote how TAFE and VET can address the skills issues that we have today. Vocational training underpins the economy,” Black said.

According to Black, there is a desperate need for more funding put into the VET system to provide the trained workforce that will deliver Australia’s infrastructure projects.

“We have an alarming and huge skills gap. Sydney Metro and other projects will not be delivered if there are no supervisors, no superintendents, no leadership,” he said. “We might not have these because we have failed miserably to invest in our vocational pathways into the future.”

Stephen Jones, principal manager of safety and business systems for Sydney Metro Northwest, said that bringing government, educational institutions and industry together was a necessary measure in combatting the skills gap across the rail sector. “One thing we at Sydney Metro realised was that we needed the VET sector, government, and our contractors to actually come together to get right outcomes. We actually brought them all around the table and said, ‘How do we work things smarter? How can the rail industry work smarter?’”

Jones said that arrangements were established that enabled the development of training facilities needed to deliver some of the 20,000 workers required on the first two stages of the Metro project. “We developed training and skill centres which government and contractors can actually use to train their staff up,” he said. This kind of collaboration, he said, was what was needed on other rail projects going forward. “What you’ve to do is get those three parties together – government, TAFE and industry – to actually come together and make sure everyone is clear on what needs to be delivered, set a path and then go hard as you can to actually deliver it.”

Technological innovation in the rail industry is seeing the development of methods to improve operations, increase energy efficiency, streamline asset management and provide advanced monitoring of safety critical communications. These new technologies, their adoption and management, will require the employment and acquisition of new skills within rail industry workforce.

The Sydney Metro project will see an expected total investment of around $40 to $45 billion, representing not only a massive engineering and construction task, but also an operations and maintenance task that will require a sizeable workforce trained in these new systems. The adoption of autonomous systems across the rail industry is expected to have major ramifications for the future make-up of the industry’s workforce, which will see new skills being needed in remote operations, diagnostics, maintenance and communications.

Jones indicated that the fact Sydney Metro was a completely new system employing new technology presented opportunities that set it apart from other existing arrangements in place in Sydney and across Australia. “It actually gives us the opportunity to do things differently that haven’t been done and we can shape influence and drive outcomes in terms of what skills we and employ,” he said.

“We’ll have people with new skills coming in and that’s exciting for the industry.”


Rail Express will have a full report into the skills gap as part of its special feature on Certification, Workforce & Training, in the November-December print edition, which will be released at AusRAIL 2018 in Canberra.

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