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The rail industry is approaching a challenging phase in which it is racing to replace an entire generation who are approaching retirement at an alarming speed.

An ageing workforce and difficulty with retaining young workers requires companies across the industry to engage in digitalized knowledge exchange and innovative recruitment methods.

Loss of industry knowledge

Whenever a trusted employee reaches retirement it is a loss for any organization. Not only are you losing a great colleague, you also experience a substantial loss of organizational and industrial knowledge. Long serving employees have had years to retain this knowledge. It is a valuable commodity and it is important to retain it in the industry. Due to the departure of long serving employees, large amounts of industry knowledge have already been lost.

Many organizations have yet to implement any practices to manage the transfer of knowledge from exiting employees to those who are succeeding them. This could potentially become a huge challenge in the future.

Simultaneously, studies have shown that new graduates are more likely to change jobs at a faster rate than their predecessors. Few young workers have the ambition to stay in the same job for 20+ years. In general, they want to experience as much as possible as fast as possible. In terms of knowlegde exchange, this is another important challenge that the industry must take into consideration. Every time an employee decides to end his or her employment – whether it is for retirement or another job – vital knowledge is lost. It is crucial that the industry finds a way to manage this challenge.

Luckily, there seems to be a general view in the industry that transfer of knowledge should be targeted. Knowledge should be stored in systems as well as in the minds of people.

Knowledge transformed into digital algorithms

An increasing number of organizations in the industry have decided to invest in digitalizing their organization. They have realized that their employees with high seniority have valuable knowledge and that this knowledge should be put into digital algorithms. This will simplify the transition process and make it easier for the successor to understand the organization and acquire knowledge.

Digitizing knowledge also has potential to optimize operations and minimize the need for maintenance. Newcomers to the industry lack the experience and they do not have any experience with the equipment. This might result in unnecessary hold-ups or acute (and costly) maintenance initiatives. This could have been avoided if the successor was given an opportunity to enter the ‘brain’ of his or her senior.

Limited talent pool

Turning knowledge into data is the best way to ensure that the next generations in the industry will succeed in their new role. However, the industry is struggling to recruit new candidates. There are several factors that might explain why the industry is struggling to find new talent:

  • A lack of awareness of the industry
  • Negative media coverage
  • A lack of a visible career path
  • A general perception that the industry is highly resistant to change

These issues all have an impact on the newly turned out graduates who are searching for the perfect industry to start their career. Furthermore, when thinking about the industry, many graduates vision nothing more than trains and railways. They simply seem to forget to dig a little deeper into the industry. They do not see the technology behind it, and they do not seem to realize that trains and railways need more to run than a track and a driver.

New ways of recruiting

There is a strong competition from especially the aircraft industry and the car industry, and the talent pool is limited. Recruiting the best and the brightest is a tough competition. It forces organizations to adopt innovative approaches to attracting talent.

Around the world, organizations within the rail industry have innovated their recruitment strategy. In Belgium, the infrastructure manager of the Belgian railways, Infrabel, hosts a so-called Job Day every year. It is a job fair where prospective recruits can tour railway facilities and learn more about career opportunities in the industry. If the day has sparked an interest in pursuing a career in Infrabel, hiring can happen on the spot. The process of filling in paperwork is designed to be as straightforward as possible and there are professionals present who can administer the required tests. As a result, the new hires can be clocking in in a matter of weeks.

This rather ‘aggressive’ way of recruiting new talent is not uncommon in the industry. Spitzke, a German infrastructure engineering firm, use platforms such as Facebook to promote new career opportunities. They also use the social media platforms promote some of the innovative initiatives that are taking place in the industry. They aim to minimize the general perception that the rail industry is afraid of changes

As a part of their recruitment strategy, Spitzke also attends many job fairs. At these events, they try to emphasize the many opportunities for career development that the industry offers. They want to ensure that the recruits know that there are many ways to advance your career when working in rail. They wish to inspire potential applicants and show them a visible career path.

A new era of innovation and digitalization

As with all stereotypes it takes time to change them. Despite several initiatives aimed at rebranding the rail industry, the general public still view the industry as it once was: slow and resistant to change. It is a hard label to get rid of, and it is unlikely to change without a key focus on innovation. Fortunately, the industry is entering a new era of innovation and digitalization.

The new generations’ way of working and thinking is completely different from that of the ‘old’ generation. The industry is slowly starting to realize that they must adapt to this new way of thinking – especially if they want to attract new talent. Much like Infrabel and Spitzke, an increasing number of organizations have implemented new recruitment strategies. They have also begun to implement support mechanisms that will help new entrants into the industry. Such mechanisms are youth liaison officers, youth forums, web-based discussion boards and so forth.

The industry might be struggling right now, but there is a light ahead of the tunnel. Action is taken in order to attract new talents and the industry is no longer afraid to try out new ideas.

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