Opinion piece by Caroline Wilkie, CEO, Australasian Railway Association

Over the past two weeks, the ARA has participated in two industry roundtables with Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government the Hon Catherine King MP. The forums have provided an excellent opportunity for our sector and others in infrastructure and surface transport to provide insights and practical examples for the Minister for her to reference as she attends this week’s Jobs and Skills Summit.

The Australasian Railway Association’s (ARA) 2022 Building Australian Rail Skills for the Future report confirmed expected workforce gaps of up to 70,000 skilled workers by 2023.

Anecdotally, from speaking to ARA members we are seeing 30-35% shortages in roles across the sector, with percentages higher in key roles such as signalling. The shortages are starker in remote areas such as the Pilbara.

The areas of acute shortage in the rail sector in the short and medium term are:

  • Train drivers
  • Train controllers
  • Track workers
  • Signalling engineers and technicians
  • Maintenance workers
  • Electrical technicians
  • Tunnellers
  • Electrical engineer
  • Mechanical engineer
  • Motor mechanics
  • Metal trades workers
  • Fabricators
  • Welders
  • Telecommunications trades workers
  • Civil engineering draftsperson
  • Electrical engineering draftsperson
  • Mechanical engineering draftsperson
  • Mechanical engineering technician
  • Cablers and telecommunications technicians
  • Electronic equipment trades worker
  • Metal fabricator
  • Sheetmetal trades worker
  • Educators, trainers and assessors
  • Overhead wiring / electrical
  • Safety and track force protection

Longer term as technology changes, we will need battery chemists.

Infrastructure Australia’s 2021 Infrastructure Market Capacity report confirmed that urgent action is needed to address this crisis, which is set to worsen over the next three years. The report found that by 2023, skills demand will be 48 per cent higher than supply, with the transport infrastructure sector set to be one of the hardest hit.

The report’s findings align closely with the ARA’s own 2018 Rail Skills Capability Study, undertaken by BIS Oxford Economics. Skills availability is also inconsistent across the country, with regional areas experiencing deeper, long-term skills shortages, particularly for trade, technical and engineering-related roles that are common to a range of industries.

In addition to the construction workforce, there is a need to increase the number of skilled workers in rail manufacturing, track maintenance, electrical and signalling, train drivers and professional engineering roles.

Beyond the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic, the rail industry in Australia is already experiencing skills shortages as investment grows in new rail infrastructure and rollingstock and operations expand.

Research into the rail supply chain released by the ARA in 2021 undertaken by BIS Oxford Economics, found that based on an analysis of existing rail projects, future needs and funding availability, there is a forecast of approximately $155 billion in new rail construction activity over the next 15 years, with 87 per cent of this procured by the public sector.

With the majority of investments often across concurrent projects in the same or adjacent jurisdictions, competition for skills is significant. The current approach to government infrastructure investment is largely uncoordinated, either within or across governments. This lack of coordination is impacting the market’s ability to respond and the availability of a sufficiently skilled workforce to meet demand.

Skills gaps are also growing, largely because of increasing digitalisation, with emerging technologies that require new skills in areas including rail signalling, autonomous and remotely operated rail vehicles and operating or driving rail vehicles.

This means the industry will need to attract a new and different workforce, competing with other industries seeking similar talent. Improved promotion of careers available in rail, and of the industry itself, will be key to achieving this goal. This also provides the industry with an unprecedented opportunity to attract a workforce that better reflects the composition of Australian society.

A major barrier to being able to attract engineers, project managers and other professionals from external industries or graduates direct from universities into rail has been the lack of appropriate courses to support their transition into rail.

There have been many reports written and ad hoc attempts have been made to address the shortfall. Historically rail training has been delivered in large publicly owned enterprises such as Queensland Rail and Sydney Trains. This enterprise-based training is not available to the wider community and therefore does not contribute to attracting and increasing the numbers of people seeking to join the rail industry. There are still very few pathways that are well defined, leading to a role in rail.

The current Industry Reference Committee structures in the rail area have built many courses and had then accredited, but very few are completed by people in the rail industry. Often this is the case because there are no TAFE or other RTOs who have the trainers who meet the criteria to deliver the courses. In the university sector at the undergraduate level, there are no courses related directly to rail, with the one exception; a Diploma in Rail Track Engineering delivered by the University of Tasmania.

Rail suffers from significant barriers to mobility, as each jurisdiction and rail infrastructure manager has differing requirements for the training courses that lead to recognition of the competencies held by workers. In other words, at a time when we have significant skills shortages, the industry is faced with large productivity losses by having workers duplicate training every time they operate in a different jurisdiction.

The TAFE sector nationally has always supported rail well in the training of tradespeople, however, in relation to the many hundreds of other roles in the rail industry, it has not taken a national approach. This has broken down over the last two decades and there has been no concurrent government investment in TAFE to support the sector in partnering with industry to develop and deliver sustainable national training programs that ensure the rail industry has access to skilled workers.

The ARA is pleased to note that the Albanese Government intends to better fund the TAFE sector and we hope that in doing so the needs of large industry sectors such as rail can be considered as a focus for TAFE funding.

Increasing diversity in the rail sector will be crucial to growing our sector. Attracting and recruiting women is one part of the equation. Rail companies must also put in the work to retain them. Five years after graduating, men with a STEM qualification are almost twice as likely (1.8 times) to be working in a STEM job compared to their women peers.

The ARA looks forward to engaging with the white paper process proposed to take place following the Jobs and Skills Summit. We will be advocating for practical ways the Commonwealth and State governments can support developing the skills of a diverse rail workforce of the future. However, we cannot just rely on government alone.  It is up to the ARA and wider industry to be proactive on those issues that we can solve ourselves. The rail industry sets itself hurdles due to the vagaries of federation. National harmonisation must be the priority, as this is a fundamental issue impacting the skills of our workforce.

Download media release