Making the right connection: Finding outstanding people to fill rail’s skills shortage

The boom in the Australian and New Zealand rail industry is stretching the skills of the industry. An estimated $50 billion worth of investment in Australia alone, across all mainland states and the ACT, is turning capital cities and regional centres into hives of rail activity. In New Zealand, the government announced NZ$1 billion ($962.5 million) in rail investment in the 2019 budget.

This makes for an exciting outlook for the rail industry, but the level of activity is placing significant pressures on the industry. In 2019, 90 per cent of employers reported a skills shortage, according to a report from Australian Industry Standards. Multiple, simultaneous developments compete for the talent and expertise required to complete complex projects on time and to budget.

Added to this is that the boom is not confined to Australia and New Zealand. European countries are also announcing large projects, with Germany alone investing over $100 billon on rail in the next ten years.

In 2018, the Australasian Rail Association forecast that by 2023, there will be a workforce gap of up 70,000 people as construction of new rail projects hits its peak. As a result, the ARA called for a National Rail Industry Skills Development Strategy, which has yet to materialise. This has meant, in the meantime, that rail companies have had to find innovative ways to find talent.

Janette Herdman, founder of specialist rail recruitment agency JHA Global, has seen businesses grapple with the skills challenge.

“In the current market the demand is outstripping the supply. Companies might win a tender and then they need to find more staff quickly.”

JHA Global’s approach is to work hand-in-glove with rail businesses’ HR departments to find people that are the right fit.

“The way we look at it, HR is made up of the keepers of the keys to an organisation. They control culture, manage talent, work to contain costs, keep the company regulated, provide a safe haven for staff and keep an organization growing,” said Herdman.

Janette Herdman ensures JHA Global’s objectives are aligned with the business it is assisting.

“HR is too important to ignore. The talent solution is a partner to the business, not an add-on or a temporary fix. When we go into an organisation, we always make sure our goals are exactly the same, and that we’re aware of the business objectives. JHA Global compliments and builds on the work of HR to create a well-oiled machine that is consistently moving towards growing your business and achieving your goals.”

JHA Global takes a three-pronged approach to addressing the rail skills gap. Starting at the foundation, JHA Global connects businesses with the next generation of talent via its cadet program. As rail competes with other, growing industries for the best graduates and school leavers, securing a pipeline of cadets provides a business – and the wider industry – with a pool of engaged and committed individuals.

“Our clients find the cadet program gives them the strategic advantage to secure great talent and train them to understand their systems – with no down-time to them,” said Herdman.

“We help identify and recruit cadets with drive and ambition for the rail industry and provide mentorship and reviews to help propel them – and your organisation – to success.”

The next prong of JHA Global is its rail recruitment arm. Here, JHA Global combines its industry knowledge with the latest smart systems to match its database of applicants with the jobs in the industry.

“By using smart technology and artificial intelligence we help our recruiters identify and attract high-calibre talent across our extensive talent network,” said Herdman.

Using artificial intelligence, JHA Global can find a match between applicant and job 10 times faster than in traditional processes.

The final prong is JHA Global’s executive search function. A boutique and targeted service, JHA Global goes beyond the established networks and connections to find the unique applicant who will drive a business forward.

Herdman describes this service as targeting people who have a demonstrable track-record of delivering outstanding results in challenging markets.

“Not the kind of people who are likely to respond to an ad placed on an online jobs board.”

While social media tools such as LinkedIn have become ubiquitous in the modern recruitment world, JHA Global’s approach is to go beyond these technologies to draw upon a global network.

“Social media has become the way forward for companies to promote and select people, but if you are not an expert, you will find it difficult to find the needle in the haystack,” said Herdman. “JHA Global finds the needle in the haystack.”

Indeed, while the rail infrastructure pipeline in Australia is large, the local industry is competing in a global market when it comes to finding the right people to complete some of the most challenging projects around the globe. JHA Global recognises this and looks beyond what is immediately apparent.

“My vision is to provide outstanding candidates to companies within rail, speedily and at reduced costs to what they are currently paying,” said Herdman.

“Our point of difference goes beyond technology. The JHA Global team is made up of highly-skilled and experienced professionals worldwide who are motivated to deliver exceptional service and positive outcomes for our clients and candidates.”

Federal underspend in vocational education leads to fewer apprenticeships

The federal government has been accused of underspending towards vocational education and training programs, potentially exacerbating the skills shortage already felt by the rail industry.

The education department, this week, released its 2018-19 annual report in which it revealed it had spent less than was budgeted for key programs including trade support loans (-$68m), Australian Apprenticeships Centres (-$51m) and apprenticeship incentives (-$35m).

The government underspent $214m in vocational education and training programs in the last financial year, contributing to a total $919m underspend since 2014.

In fact, there are 150,000 fewer Australians in apprenticeships now than in 2013. With a significant skills shortage already affecting the rail industry, an underspend on TAFE training is likely an unwelcome result when the pipeline for new work has never been bigger.

Shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek accused the government of “[shortchanging] TAFE and training by $1bn despite the fact Australia is suffering a national shortage of tradies”.

The skills and employment minister Michaelia Cash rejected this, arguing that the figures “represent underspends which come from demand-driven programs in vocational education and training”.

According to Labor’s analysis of annual reports, the underspend has been persistent: with the government spending $138m less than promised in 2014-15, $247m less in 2015-16, $118m in 2016-17 and $202m in 2017-18.

The Victorian and NSW governments this week both announced programs which were aimed at boosting TAFE figures.

The NSW government announced a new program to incentivise study at TAFE, by allowing students to receive recognition for what they have already learnt in high school.

“We are incentivising high-achieving HSC students into our vocational education sector by giving them a head-start at TAFE NSW,” said Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education Geoff Lee.

“We will do this by mapping HSC units to vocational competencies and allowing eligible students to proceed straight to assessments.”

HSC subjects that could qualify for these new TAFE pathways include mathematics, engineering studies, industrial technology and, software design and development.

Victoria, in turn, announced it would inject $500,000 for its Free TAFE courses to develop educational products and resources for Free TAFE students to have access to. The funding will also go towards additional modules for Free TAFE students to build their literacy, numeracy, digital and employability skills.

In the 2019 budget, the federal government announced a $525m skills package – including towards the creation of 80,000 new apprenticeships – but it contained just $55m of new money and $463m in reallocations from the Skilling Australians Fund.