Closing The Digital Skills Gap

April 21, 2020
Closing The Digital Skills Gap

There is a growing demand for digital and data skills across all industries. A World Economic Forum report found that 8.5% of companies will need data analysts by 2022.

Meanwhile, the rail industry is falling farther and farther behind. Construction is an ageing workforce: in 2011, 1 in 5 employees were aged over 55 and that imbalance has only increased today. The industry faces a requirement of 50,000 new workers by 2033 to replace retirees and adapt to new changes in technology but so far, digital knowledge and advancement are slow.

So what has happened to cause this digital skills gap in rail – and what can be done to fix it?

The Cause

  • Project-specific Culture

Many rail companies operate on a project-by-project basis with different teams, contractors and subcontractors working on each one. When projects and even individual worksites act in silos, a culture of innovation is difficult. The testing of new technology needs to span multiple projects and phases in order to return actionable, verifiable results. All too often specific teams are picking up a new piece of technology, only for it to be forgotten again when the project ends.

  • Boom & Bust

The nature of rail’s boom and bust industry means that short-term pressures restrict investment. The adoption of new ideas is not a priority when contractors are forced to fight tooth and nail over new tenders and fit as much work in as possible during a busier period. Similarly, companies are reluctant to sign up to new processes, technology and therefore costs that they will still have to shoulder during quieter months. A more consistent provision of works would provide the space and motivation required to invest in innovation.

  • Undervaluing Innovation

The potential value of digital technology and data is not yet fully understood within the industry. Intelligent data analysis can reduce costs, improve project delivery and help to win future work, but the initial resistance to changing processes can be daunting. Until innovation is treated as essential to business growth, the necessary changes will not be made.

  • Lack Of New Talent

A 2018 study found that only 3 in 10 young people would consider a career in rail. The research suggests that the industry is less attractive to job candidates, due in part to its reputation for being stuck in its ways. Another factor is simply a lack of visibility around the sector; many young people do not consider rail because they do not know about the opportunities within it. Attracting new technology, data and engineering professionals will be a challenge for the industry moving forward and, with fewer people moving into rail from other sectors, there is little opportunity for fresh perspectives.

The Impact

The lack of digital know-how in rail is already having an impact.

  • Valuable Industry Data Is Not Being Analysed

Failing to collect and analyse project data can be detrimental to both project delivery and contractors’ businesses as a whole. During a project the timely collection of data can help to identify cost overruns, delays and risks before they become a problem, resulting in more efficient project management. When it comes to winning new business, previous project data can be collated and averaged out to inform more accurate tenders and estimates, which improves project value and the chance of being successful.

With infrastructure projects across the world facing scrutiny for cost and schedule overruns - like Crossrail or HS2 - using data analysis to improve planning and delivery is a must moving forward.

  • Inefficient Work Methods

Out-of-date processes mean that time is being wasted on administration, and, unclear communication results in more mistakes. For example, shift reports are being filled out on paper, typed up into an email, and then re-typed into a report back in the office. Or, a communication failure results in field-based teams working to an out-of-date project spec because the update didn’t reach them in time. Innovation creates value and allows contractors to better meet their clients’ needs.

The Solution

  • Culture Change

For ‘at scale’ digitalisation throughout rail companies, leadership must understand the potential of digital innovation and how to make it effective. This could include changes to organisational structure, culture, skills investment and dedicated data or innovation teams. Often middle-managers and engineers are the first to embrace new technology, but for the change to be universal it needs to be championed from the top.

The focus should be not on adopting and teaching one specific technology but on improving general levels of digital literacy, problem-solving and data analysis skills. Approaching it in this way means that the workforce will be more enthusiastic and open to innovation, with the understanding necessary to implement new processes quickly and easily.

Network Rail is already taking steps to encourage this culture among contractors on a broad scale. The client cites innovation as a requirement to be demonstrated in any project tenders, issuing regular challenge statements and research priorities. Furthermore, their recent SME action plan, which lays out how they plan to improve engagement with small and medium enterprises, includes a section on innovation fast tracks.

  • Upskilling

Part and parcel of this culture change is upskilling the existing workforce. Training should be provided in a range of formats suited to employee preferences such as in-person courses, video and reading. Encouraging improved digital understanding across the sector ensures that the existing workforce will be less resistant to change.

At a higher level, senior staff need to remain open to ideas and feedback. Encouraging this continuous feedback during training creates a more motivated, productive and problem-solving culture.

Digital skill development in Railways, Source: World Bank Blogs

  • Recruitment

Bringing new talent into the industry is crucial for introducing new perspectives and innovation. Training bodies such as NSAR, in partnership with Network Rail, are rolling out new apprenticeships and training courses to address the skills gap. Contractors are encouraged to take on apprentices for the long-term benefit of a younger workforce, improved digital skills and innovative culture.

Similarly, rail must diversify the existing workforce. Women, military leavers and experts from other industries are invaluable sources of new skills and talent. To attract them the industry needs to show a commitment to driving innovation and cutting-edge technology.

Raildiary’s Approach To Digital Skills

Raildiary offers a market-leading data-collection and analysis platform tailored to the rail construction industry. On-site teams use our mobile app to record access, actual works, issues and photos, which are then available in real-time for project teams to analyse and intervene. Our top benefits include reducing project cost, delivering projects on time and getting paid for 100% of works complete.

When it comes to training we offer a range of options including in-person training, day or night, a Knowledge Base and live chat services, and how-to guides and videos. We firmly believe that the success of innovation depends on widespread adoption and understanding, so our top priority will always be in ensuring that the entire workforce is enthusiastic about the product and understands its value.

Our specialist in-house team is comprised of software engineers, UX experts, product specialists and rail-industry veterans who understand the intricacies of rail construction and infrastructure projects.

Will Doyle


I am an experienced RICS chartered Quantity Surveyor​ with first-hand experience of how the consistent capture and analysis of data can transform global project delivery.

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