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'Early specialisation' deters would-be railway engineers

12 March 2012

The current training and development for railway engineers encourages specialisation too early, a strategy which is likely to limit career paths and could deter new entrants, according to a survey of professional engineers from the industry. This is the overwhelming view of chartered engineers and Institution of Mechanical Engineers associate member engineers revealed by a survey of future training and skills demand conducted by Lloyd’s Register and the IMechE.

“Young people are attracted to professions that do not appear to restrict choice and variety; so we need to demonstrate how a career in the railways offers a solid technical grounding with plenty of opportunities to follow specialist interests later as their experience develops," says John Stansfeld, Transportation Director, Lloyd's Register. "We must challenge the perception that engineers are ‘locked in' to one discipline for life.”

The survey also found that there is strong support for training and qualifications for rail engineers to move away from internal, self-accredited standards and place more emphasis on giving new recruits a broader, more systems-focused approach.

“We need to encourage more people to pursue railway engineering careers and the fact that people are forced to specialise so early could deter some of the best engineering talent," says Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport at the IMechE. “Government and industry need to work together to find ways to allow people to specialise later in their careers.”

Key findings of the survey:
• Over 80% of respondents agreed that current training and development encourages specialisation too early which can limit career paths and deter new entrants.
• The industry is encouraged to break down ‘silos’ between disciplines and focus on providing new recruits with a wider level of knowledge and better understating of system interfaces before exploring specialist interests.
• Over 70% respondents felt that whilst reducing costs and increasing capacity will continue to preoccupy boardrooms, the skills in highest demand over the next 10 years will be in the field of energy efficiency.
• Future engineering leaders will need to demonstrate a more enterprising and innovative approach with a willingness to challenge practices.

"Listening to today's rail engineers, they appear to agree that a systems-based approach to training will not only be more attractive to recruits, but will offer far greater benefits to the industry than keeping disciplines at arms length," Mr Stansfield adds. "At the same time, we need to anticipate and respond to future skills demand, such as in energy efficiency. Whilst taking positive steps to ensure a strong supply of rail engineering expertise, we must be ready to meet tomorrow’s challenges.”

Gil Howarth, Chief Executive of the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering said: “We welcome this initiative and the results of the survey are remarkably consistent with the views expressed to us. As part of our campaign to promote railway engineering in schools, last summer together with The Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust, we jointly sponsored a four-day residential course in Railway Systems Engineering at the University of Birmingham for forty 16 & 17 year olds students. This proved to be very popular and will now be an annual event.

“A systems engineering approach will be essential to the implementation of the European Rail Traffic Management System across the network over the next 20 to 30 years with train control moving from line-side signals to in-cab.”

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