The UK rail sector is facing an imminent skills shortage as many of today’s most experienced electrification engineers near retirement. An innovative approach to staff training and development is therefore essential as the industry looks to the future. Rail suppliers are being challenged to bring new blood into the arena and increase the skills of existing staff in order to meet the demand. Global engineering, construction and technical services provider URS is a company with a solid strategy in place to help grow its electrification and power engineering team by nearly one third in anticipation of the growing workload in the years ahead.

URS’ current strategy in rail stems from experience gained nearly two decades ago. In 2010, the company acquired the Scott Wilson Group which had purchased two former British Railways design offices in 1995 when the industry was privatised. One of its first tasks then was to develop both alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) electrification capability from scratch. As part of that ambition, it created a graduate development scheme accredited by both the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Engineering Technology. In 1997 the company was awarded overhead line electrification (OLE) design accreditation, one of the first firms in the UK to achieve this.

The challenge now in terms of developing the next generation of electrification professionals is just as great as it was 20 years ago. Previous tactics of recruiting qualified electrification engineers from Australia and South Africa are unlikely to be particularly fruitful as these countries are keeping home-grown engineers busy with their own expanding programmes of work. The UK must therefore develop the skills of its own electrification professionals or find innovative ways to attract new talent into the industry.

A global and local approach

The company has a comprehensive programme in place so that the bright stars of tomorrow can learn directly from engineers with as many as three decades of experience. It is now actively recruiting for engineers at all levels in electrification engineering and associated disciplines.

URS’ UK operations are feeling the full benefit of being part of the wider Europe, Middle East and India organisation by training the highly experienced OLE engineers in the group’s business in Poland to become familiar with the UK rail system. Once trained, the Polish engineers work alongside their UK counterparts on a number of projects. URS calls this model workshare, where engineers from around the world are brought together to work on projects, regardless of where they are located, as part of a seamless team.

URS is currently intensively training this year’s electrification graduates in AC, DC and OLE skills and power systems work while at the same
time developing them to become chartered engineers. As one of the requirements for this is a master’s degree, a unique programme of in-house further learning has been developed which enables graduates with bachelor’s degrees to become chartered.

Aimed specifically at OLE graduates, the one-year, on-the-job training programme is the equivalent of an MSc and is accredited by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. URS is the only company in the UK to offer such a scheme. Through this programme, engineers can work, earn and achieve the next step in their qualification without taking a career break or incurring the expense of going back to academia.

Graduates hired in this year’s intake are currently undergoing a comprehensive OLE design course run by senior URS engineers which combines classroom instruction with on the job training involving designing for live and completed projects. All graduates on the OLE design course have an in-house mentor who closely monitors their performance, checks their work and oversees their progress to ensure that their designs meet URS’ quality standards and conform to relevant technical standards.

Training is not limited to OLE work. A similar programme is being run for DC and AC electrification, as well as for special line-side electrical systems engineering. Rob Tidbury, technical director and head of railway electrification and power engineering at URS, explains: “We believe that this intensive training will enable our graduates to actively contribute to the business within a very short time of joining the company, achieving a high level of ability after two years.”

Inspiring the next generation

The real key to addressing the skills shortage is to ignite young people’s imagination about the possibilities of an engineering career. Early
next year the company will begin a search with local schools to find candidates to join its new apprenticeship scheme for school leavers. “It’s never too young to start opening young people’s eyes to the wonders of engineering,” Rob says.

URS has also launched a higher apprenticeship scheme across its rail business, covering signalling and telecommunications engineering, among other disciplines. In 2014, the rail business in Swindon will work with local schools to find mechanical and electrical apprentices to join the electrification team at the end of the academic year. These apprentices will work in the office four days a week and learn on day release on the fifth day. Their recruitment will further cement URS’ close relationship with the local community.

An integrated team

Electrification engineers are part of a truly integrated team at URS, focused on quality and delivery. OLE, AC and DC engineers work together and gather good all-round experience and knowledge. They also work alongside permanent way, signalling and civil engineering designers so there is a real sense of teamwork with specialists pulling together and developing shared ideas for the good of the client.

Rob explains: “By training new people and allowing them to learn from our strong team of highly experienced electrification engineers, we believe that we can address much of the looming skills shortage. But URS is also recruiting fully qualified engineers for electrification work and we believe we have a lot to offer in terms of opportunity, challenge and career progression.

“People joining us can move forwards in leaps and bounds and even run their own teams within a couple of years. They too can learn the tricks of the trade from engineers more experienced than them, which will enable them to take on higher profile work and quickly develop in their careers.”

That experience includes in depth OLE knowledge but also the intricacies of converting DC electrification to AC, which is necessary in certain areas of the country. Rob continues: “Earthing and bonding can be something of a black art but we have people in URS who have a deep understanding of those processes and who are willing to share that knowledge with more junior staff.”