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Rail industry struggling to attract engineers

07 February, 2013

Rail is an essential piece of infrastructure in Australia, responsible for moving millions of people and vast quantities of resources.

However, a relatively flat rate of graduating engineers has increased competition for engineering skills, and the rail industry has struggled to attract sufficient numbers of engineers and skilled trades and technicians to fulfil its current and future infrastructure needs, according to research from Southern Cross University.

A report prepared by the University – in conjunction with the Cooperative Research Centre for Rail Innovation, Queensland University of Technology and industry partners– identified that engineers, who are in short supply globally, have not been attracted to careers in rail to the extent that the demand for rail engineers has outstripped employment by about 40 per cent. The report was recently published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources.

Engineers Australia estimated that by the 2011 census, 70,000 engineering retirements would have occurred, while graduates from Australian universities would number only about 45,000 for the same period.

It is also estimated that there will be vast numbers of retirements of rail engineers in the next five to 10 years as the average age of an engineer in the rail workforce is 48.

Project leader Associate Professor Michelle Wallace said the report highlighted the difficulties and opportunities facing the rail industry.

"There were some interesting findings from the interviews and surveys we conducted," she said.

"We found that the rail industry did not have a strong brand. Many of those interviewed were not aware of any new infrastructure that had been built since the steam era – the industry was not seen as modern and contemporary which is obviously not correct.

"However, when provided with rail brochures, students responded positively asking ‘What is it about?’, ‘What do you do?’ and ‘Who can I call?’. This suggests a level of curiosity among students towards rail careers. This situation provides the rail industry opportunities to educate students, teachers and careers advisors about current investment in rail and the potential of a rail career."

While for some in the industry, rail was typified as male dominated and old fashioned, focus groups of younger graduates and tradespeople revealed a different picture. As employees, their perceptions of rail were positive, with rail being described as offering good career prospects, security, flexibility and regular hours.

The report is being used as a basis to assist the rail industry identify best practice attraction and image strategies that are in use around the world to rebrand career pathways in rail to make them more appealing to early career graduates.

Associate Professor Wallace co-authored the report with SCU research associate Neroli Sheldon, Dr Roslyn Cameron and Professor Ian Lings.

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Cliff Collins | Saturday, February 9, 2013, 8:16 AM
Hi there, It amazes me that people hide behind names and make claims such as this, (above story) 70,000 engineers needed. My, there must be huge expansion planed to need 70, 000, guys certified to push paper, and do drawings. An engineer is somebody that has authority to stand, and tell the officials to back down, somebody that designs, understands stress, is educated. Saying you need engineers and meaning you need welders and mechanics. Engineers used to be drivers of steam engines be they ship or rail or stationary, some how the name has been abused. Don't be offended every body does it, I was an electronics technician, sounds grand, I fixed radios, truth, electronics is such a vast field. Technician in electronics, now is a far far greater field than just repairing radios. I wouldn’t have a hope. I know the basics - understand circuits - can work out the current requirement of loads. BUT I could not claim the true meaning of the name. The name is given to a person that stands behind a microphone control, or in a camera booth. Truth is that if the camera or the preamps failed they could do nothing, most would have no idea apart from opening a door and screaming for a, Guess who?? Yet they are called Technicians. The name is being bandied about. Just being down graded to cover almost any part of any field. So PROFESIONAL SPECIALIST NEWS ENGINEER or SPECIALIST PROFESIONAL WORD TECHNICIAN, Please help stop the slide. If you mean a welder,, CALL HIM A WELDER. That’s my bitch for the day Cheers Cliff Collins
John Pozza | Monday, February 11, 2013, 1:24 PM
I was a an apprentice then Coppersmith tradesman with the State Rail Authority of NSW from 1980 to 1989. The Government of the day could not wait to get rid of the majority of their tradesmen and others from the work force. This was not just the Liberals under Griener but also Labour under Unsworth. SRA trained around 300 apprentices for the State and around 100 for the SRA every year. At the end of their apprenticeship the State apprentices were turned lose to go to private industries. The NSW State Government in the mid 1980s decided to stop the training of all State apprentices and make private industry do the training. Privite industry did not conduct the training required for that number of apprentices. NSW TAFE over the last 30 years has been reducing courses and the number of teachers as well. I had a change of career and became an Electrical Engineering Draftsman majoring in electrical power, with Defence as a Design Draftsman. To the best of my knowledge I attended the last power distribution course in NSW TAFE in 1994. The few trainees we had after that date had only computer and electronic courses to choose from. I will retire in 10 years. Yep only 10 years, but who's counting. :-)