A new model of collaboration could be the workforce solution for a labour-constrained industry.
In 2018, after years of waiting, work began on the full electrification of the Gawler Rail Line. A critical project to modernise Adelaide’s rail network and allow for the introduction of electric rollingstock, the relatively small size of the rail sector in South Australia presented an obstacle for the project – how to get the right number of qualified people to work on the project.
An issue not uncommon to rail projects around Australia, the limited supply and ageing demographic of the rail workforce means that labour shortages are a significant issue, said Angela Henderson, national operations manager of Momentum Rail Workforce Solutions, a specialist rail services and personnel provider engaged for the project.
“The challenges are that there is really a set amount of qualified people with the correct competencies to do the roles required for this project and we need more than what there is in the pool,” said Henderson.
The specific roles that the project required were protection officers as well as stopboarders. Staff in these roles play a safety critical role in managing the traffic coming in and out of the worksite. To meet this need, Momentum joined forces with sister company rail training provider CERT Training (Centre for Excellence in Rail Training) to provide the staff with the required level of competency to work on track.
Initially, the project has focused on the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) owned section of rail, which requires specific knowledge of ARTC safe-working rules. Getting staff to this level of competency took a combination of theory and practical knowledge, said Michael Arthur, CERT general manager.
“The staff need to be trained up on the ARTC safe working rules, and the process for that is a combination of formal training in the classroom and also on-site training and mentoring them with experienced Momentum staff members
to get them to the level of knowledge and capability to perform those duties on their own.”
So far, three groups have been conducted through the program, with training for each combining in classroom and on-site instruction taking two months.
What made this project possible, was the unique combination of CERT’s training capabilities with Momentum’s workforce solution. Momentum has collaborated with a job provider to find suitable candidates, while CERT has ensured that they have the required qualifications to be on the worksite. By working with a job provider, staff have been drawn from outside the rail industry and from a diversity of backgrounds, including women, long-term unemployed, people from minority backgrounds and Indigenous people, overcoming the traditional demographics of the rail industry. On the Gawler project, this has meant for those roles covered by Momentum, staff have not had to be poached from other projects.
“What we’ve found is that we’ve been able to enlarge that pool of required people for the project,” said Henderson.
Momentum’s experienced senior employees then mentored these employees to be ready to productively complete the work required, said Arthur.
“Through the mentoring process, the trainees get to consolidate their learning, and once they’re able to prove that they are competent, we get sign off from our trainer that they’ve passed the theoretical and also demonstrated that in a practical environment, then we can issue them their qualification for safe working.”
In this program, CERT and Momentum, both companies under the Engenco Group umbrella, have been able to combine their distinct abilities.
“Together we can offer a complete workforce solution to our clients and that’s exciting,” said Henderson. “By coming together, we bring that expertise together and we offer a very good product to our client.”
As Anthony Fritsche, executive general manager – Workforce Solutions outlines, the outcome is more than a job, and more than a training qualification.
“It’s actually about offering a full pathway, when you put training and labour together you offer a whole onboarding, employment, and career development program. The full value chain in human resource solutions.”
A COLLABORATIVE WORKFORCE SOLUTION
In the case of the Gawler project, the collaboration would not have been possible without buy-in from the lead contractor, in this case Lendlease. Rather than mandating that staff have 6 to 12 months of experience before working on the project, the contractor trusted CERT’s ability to appropriately train staff before coming onto site, said Henderson.
“The way the project is structured, the new staff can work under another protection officer, and is directing them. They’re able to get the experience required through that process by having that more senior person there constantly to assist them.”
The on-site supervision is backed up by CERT’s rail training heritage, with training built upon industry experience, highlighted Arthur.
“We make sure that our trainers have industry leading backgrounds and experience in all the different disciplines that they deliver. We have subject matter experts that create the resources internally and we work very closely with operators in the industry, to make sure that everything that we’re using is current. Then we work closely with Momentum to ensure that the training programs that we have available are adequate and fit for purpose for their staff when they go out on site and meet the needs of the rail operators.”
With the staff now out on track working, there is the opportunity for them to take these skills further in the rail industry. Some will add competencies to their skill sets as the project moves from ARTC track to rail controlled by the South Australia Department of Infrastructure and Transport, while others will be able to take the skills they have learnt so far and apply them to new projects, creating a pipeline of skilled, competent and experienced rail workers.
“Having entered with no background at all, the opportunities for them to develop and work their way through the system is endless,” said Arthur. “They can go as far as they want to go.”
With the experience on the Gawler project, there is also opportunities for the model to be applied to other areas of the rail industry. Already, CERT and Momentum are working with a national freight operator to find, train and deliver drivers, terminal operators, and shunters.
“Operators recognise that there’s an ongoing demand for drivers that isn’t being met through traditional means,” said Arthur. “We’ve worked with them to put together a program now where we’ll take people with no rail background and run them through a series of training programs that includes vocational placement that will allow them to gain practical experience and ultimately the plan is to work them right through until they become qualified drivers.”
With labour shortages a critical issue for the rail sector as a whole, innovative workforce models such as this will be critical for the sector’s future.
“The traditional way of offering a dollar more than the next operator down the road to pinch their staff is a very short-sighted model and not one that’s going to be sustainable,” said Arthur.
“Whether the projects be safe working, infrastructure, or driving operations, we’re looking at programs across the country and where we can provide our clients a pipeline of staff who are new entrants to the industry. They are trained specifically for that operator in their rules and procedures, and then through Momentum, we’re able to place those people into employment. It’s effectively providing a customised, tailored workforce solution that’s implanted into a client’s business and then able to grow to meet their ongoing demand.”
Fritsche highlights that this workforce solution will be key for the rail industry to meet the demand for skills and labour.
“This model will be able to increase the pool of talent in a structured way. We’re building a fit for purpose workforce of the future through this type of model, drawing upon different demographics and because we’re providing the training, the skills, the knowledge and the employment, then we can control that whole process ensuring an effective and sustainable outcome.