Thales building a local home for rail’s next generation


Thales is investing in the local workforce to enable rail’s next generation to fill the digital skills gap.

According to a 2015 report from Deloitte Access Economics, by 2020, Australia was expected to have a digital skills gap of 100,000 people. According to business leaders, last year, the technology sector was an estimated 200,000 people short.

Within the rail sector, similar shortages of these in-demand skills are being reported. In the Australasian Railway Association’s 2018 investigation into the workforce capabilities of the rail sector, by financial year 2021, there would be a 29 per cent workforce gap in the area of engineering, ICT, and science technicians. By 2024, the gap is expected to grow to 26.7 per cent of the workforce required. For ICT professionals, the picture is only slightly better, with a 22.6 per cent gap expected in 2024.

At the same time, the demand for digital skills has never been greater.

In NSW, the state government has committed to the digital transformation of transport. The Sydney Metro line is one of the most technologically advanced passenger railways in Australia, and Transport for NSW’s Digital Systems program aims to put Sydney Trains at the forefront of digital rail. Across all sectors, the state hopes to become the digital capital of the southern hemisphere.

To enable this digitisation of transport, governments around Australia and New Zealand are looking to partners in the private sector who can help them achieve this vision. One of those partners is Thales, which has established a digital innovation lab in Western Sydney to connect local talent to the digital innovation happening around the globe.

Thales Australia strategy director for ground transportation systems, Sita Brown, is watching how these demands for next generation technology are playing out locally.

“We’re already starting to see the implementation of new technologies in industry, an increased demand for automation and things like big data”.

With Thales’s business covering not only rail but defence, aerospace, and security, Brown is aware of both the broader demand for digital skills and the specificities of rail’s workforce needs.

“Digitisation is obviously not unique to rail, but I think the issue that we have in rail and why this is such a hot topic at the moment is that rail is undergoing this unprecedented investment and modernisation at precisely the time when the industry is suffering from a real skills shortage,” she said.

Outside of NSW, next-generation digital signalling is being installed in Melbourne and Brisbane, and planning for high-capacity signalling in Perth is underway. Australia’s freight rail network has also led the world in automation to achieve higher levels of productivity. Each of these systems require digital skills and knowledge in the planning, implementation, and delivery stages, while opening the door for further digital innovation. Rather than a single digital skill set, digital capabilities will be needed across an entire industry.

“We’re going to need to become an industry with a highly technical skillset,” said Brown. “Specifically, skills in cyber security and data analytics will be essential in helping to create more efficient, safe, reliable, and sustainable transport systems.”

To meet the demand for digital skills Thales is harnessing the energy of youth. With 35,000 students enrolled in information and communications technology courses around Australia in 2017, and numbers continuing to grow, capturing this wave of younger talent is one way of meeting the digital skills shortage in rail. Thales’s graduate program is attracting these students as they graduate.

“We are attracting some top talent through that program which brings new people into the organisation and into the rail industry,” said Brown. “With new people comes new thinking and fresh ideas. No one would argue that graduates are the future of our business.”

It’s widely acknowledged that rail faces not just a skills but a demographic crisis, as a significant chunk of the current workforce reaches retirement age. In addition, the traditionally male-dominated nature of the industry has hampered efforts to reach a broader segment of the workforce.

“Thales Australia is genuinely committed to supporting a culture of diversity and inclusion. It’s no secret that more diverse and inclusive teams, whether you’re talking age, gender, background, race or whatever it is, are more productive, creative, and produce better results for the business as a whole,” said Brown. “Our transport business is one of the most diverse businesses in Thales Australia. Almost 50 per cent of all new hires in the past 12 months have been female and close to half of our transport workforce is under the age of 40, so we are making great progress bridging the diversity gap” said Brown.

Harnessing the potential of rail in solving some of the big issues facing humanity is another pull factor for young graduates, as is the fact the company stretches beyond transportation into many other areas of activity likes of defence, space, aerospace and security, to name just a few.

“I think rail has suffered from a poor industry image in the past – an image of being a low tech, heavy electro-mechanical industry. However, people are starting to understand the role that technology plays in rail urbanisation and the benefits this brings to cities and communities. This is helping to attract new talent as is the fact Thales encompasses many and varied areas of activity. Irrespective of which part of the business you look at, the stuff we do is really important,” said Brown. “There’s never a dull day in Thales and it’s difficult to imagine ever being bored in such a challenging environment”.

For Thales’s graduates, this means they have the opportunity to rotate across the different parts of the Australian business be it defence or commercial and the opportunity to work on real and meaningful things. They are encouraged to challenge the status quo and are able to bring new approaches to problem solving. In turn Thales benefits from fresh ideas, new perspectives, and innovation.

Thales has also recently formalised its approach to flexible working arrangements through the introduction of ThalesFlex.

“Let’s face it, the next generation want to see dynamic companies with flexible work arrangements” said Brown. “As more and more organisations move to flexible ways of working in the wake of COVID-19, organisations who don’t embrace flexibility will inevitably be on the backfoot in terms of being an employer of choice. This will no longer be a nice to have, but a must have”.

Having been directly involved in some of NSW’s leading digital rail projects, including Sydney Metro, where Thales supplied the central control and communication systems, and Parramatta Light Rail where Thales supplied signalling and communications systems, the company’s global expertise has been invested in Australia.

“Australia is a great country to live and there’s an enormous pipeline of work in the region so for the most part we’ve been pretty successful in attracting talent from our broader global organisation and localising those skills here in Australia – either through expatriation or knowledge transfer to upskill our local workforce. We’ve also got a handful of people currently undertaking international mobility assignments so that they can develop and bring those specific skills back into country,” said Brown. “Sometimes retention can be an issue with the stop-start nature of projects that we’ve unfortunately seen in the past”.

While technical knowledge and engineering know-how can be easily imported, Thales is also aware that having experts who understand the local operating environment is equally important. For this reason, Thales has been training up local staff to be the next leaders in rail through internal learning and development programs with a particular focus on project management, including the implementation of a competency famework for project management, IPMA certification, a virtual diploma of project management, and a business acumen pilot.

With Sydney Metro Northwest completed in 2019, Thales announced that it would also be providing its services to the extension of the line that would travel underneath the CBD and to South-West Sydney.

As the Parramatta Light Rail project now approaches the final design stage, the depth of knowledge and expertise that has been localised in Sydney and Australia through these projects means that Thales is ready to take on the next challenge.

“We have a workforce mobilised with a deep understanding around those market segments so we’re well positioned and eager to win future light rail opportunities and we’ve got the capability to do that in country,” said Brown. “We’ve delivered Northwest, we’re in the process of delivering City and South West and we’re laser-focused now on the future Metro lines.”

These investments in people and technology have coalesced around the digital innovation lab that Thales has established at its site in Sydney. To date, the facility has been focused on showcasing Thales’ Integrated Communications capabilities, but will be expanded to include Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) signalling technology, with the site set to become a local centre for excellence in the application of this technology to new and existing railways.

Having the lab located locally not only aids in the development of Thales’s workforce but also allows Thales to show operators and customers its commitment to local knowledge bridging the rail industry’s digital skills gap.

“We can bring our customers through to showcase and demonstrate our capabilities,” said Brown. “The facility will continue to evolve and expand as we move into 2021.”

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