Getting rail skills back on track

An extraordinary nationwide rail investment spree has raised concerns that a national skills crisis is sweeping the nation, putting the delivery of major railway projects at risk.

Bombardier, one of three shortlisted bidders for the WA Government’s $1.6 billion railcars contract with long-term partner Downer EDI, says it is seeking to address the emerging issue by working with industry partners to ensure the delivery of future projects.

“The investment in rail across Australia today is unprecedented,” said Bombardier Transportation Australia Managing Director Paul Brown.

“The skills shortage is real, and it must be addressed collectively and proactively between the public and private sector.”

Brown was responding to an Australasian Railway Association (ARA) report released during the AusRail rail conference in November. Skills Crisis: A Call to Action highlights the dangers of “demand and no supply” in rail manufacturing skills.

ARA commissioned the report to undertake a workforce capability analysis based on planned and forecast rail infrastructure development in Australia and New Zealand over the next 10 years.

“Important urban passenger projects such as the Melbourne and Sydney Metros, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail, Perth’s Metronet and multiple light rail infrastructure and rolling stock investments, as well as crucial freight projects … unless we address shortages due to market failure, attrition, and unsuitable training arrangements, projects will blow out in terms of delivery and cost,” ARA CEO Danny Broad said.

The report calls for the establishment of a taskforce comprising government, industry and education providers to:

  • facilitate the development and maintenance of an Australian Rail Industry Pipeline of rail project to map what skilled labour will be required
  • develop a National Rail Industry Skills Development Strategy to drive reform in education and training systems and practices
  • boost awareness and attraction to rail careers.

Bombardier’s Brown acknowledged the important role governments play in growing local skills and jobs through procurement policies for large rail projects.

“We welcome the approach of State Governments like in Victoria and WA which are mandating minimum local content targets for large rail procurements,” he said. “It sends a strong message to industry that the commitment to local, skilled jobs are at the forefront of successfully delivering these projects.”

Equally, however, industry leaders had roles to play in restoring “balance” to the skills equation. “We know we have a significant part to play in addressing the skills shortage. It’s a collective problem that requires a collective solution.”

Brown said Bombardier had been in negotiation with WA training providers, to include rolling stock and rail components into their workshop training for 2019 and to establish an industry forum to discuss the inclusion of rail components into mechanical training packages or skills sets, to increase employability skills and awareness of rail careers to apprentices.

Courtesy of its long-term railcar maintenance contract with the Public Transport Authority (PTA), the Bombardier-Downer WA joint venture hires apprentices in mechanical and electrical trades.

But the partnership has acknowledged the difficulties in providing an apprentice with the complete skillset a mechanical fitter or an electrician requires to meet certification criteria.

Many of the joint venture’s tradesmen date back to the Midland Railway workshops era of 25 years ago or have come into the rail sector after completing a trade certificate elsewhere.

The full version of this story appeared in the latest edition of WA Works magazine. Find out how to subscribe here.

► CCI’s Apprenticeship Support Australia offers employers free support to recruit, train and retain apprentices and trainees across all industries. Find out more here.

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