It's not everyone that can stomach the prospect of removing layers of used toilet paper from the underside of a train before starting repair work. This is just one of the reasons the companies that run the vast and complex UK rail network find recruitment for technical roles a challenge. The work is comparatively well-paid but it is also dirty and demanding - and doing a good job is crucial for passenger safety. Even in the current economic slowdown, it is still difficult to find recruits with the right attitude and technical aptitude, particularly in the areas of train, track and signal repairs and maintenance.
The RTC Group, which owns rail recruitment consultancy ATA Rail and rail training company Catalis, has identified technically-trained military personnel as having the right combination of skills for these jobs. "Armed forces personnel who have been trained in technical disciplines and are used to repairing and maintaining tanks, ships or planes, or who have been trained in telecommunications equipment, already have the right mindset," says Scott Bulloch, head of rail and construction at ATA Rail. "Although they do need some specialised training, it's a neat crossover."
The group has established a scheme to tempt those wanting to quit the forces into the railway sector. Training arm Catalis trains the ex-service personnel, while ATA Rail, which has offices across the UK, then matches them with rail industry employers. "We promote the programme at armed forces' resettlement fairs and by going into bases to address potential leavers in groups of 40 to 50," says Bulloch.
The first phase of the scheme - called Train into Rail - is a one-week classroom and on-site training course designed to prepare recruits with specialised knowledge of types of trains, engineering systems, brakes, wheels, traction motors, diesel and power. It also gives them the chance to acquire a safety management certificate - essential for technical rail-based jobs.
Following this, ATA Rail does face-to-face assessments with recruits and matches them to jobs with train operators. Chiltern Railways, East Midlands Trains, Eurostar, Hitachi and Northern Rail have all signed up to recruit staff this way. ATA Rail then guarantees staff for 12 weeks once they are placed with an employer. If, during that time, the arrangement does not work out, the employer gets a full refund.
"The training is still evolving," says Bulloch, "but it has been successful so far, with up to 10 recruits at a time coming through each month. We plan to extend the scheme to include training for signalling and track functions, and possibly to general health and safety and train driving. We want to appeal to other groups of former military personnel too."
THE HR VIEW - Scott Bulloch is head of rail and construction at ATA Rail. "There is a real synergy between these technical roles and the equivalent jobs in the armed forces, which makes former military personnel feel like they fit right in," says Bulloch. "They understand logistics, have the motivation and may already be experienced in co-ordinating the maintenance of a fleet of aircraft; it's not too far away from a fleet of trains. The basic safety-critical elements are already ingrained," he explains. The fact that the course lasts for five days gives both sides the chance to assess their compatibility. "The five-day course gives them an opportunity to assess whether this is the right move for them," he adds, "while our assessment means we can check which employer and which role they are best suited for. One of the things the course can prepare them for is the sheer size of the rail depots. The staff at the Eurostar depot, for example, use bicycles to travel the half mile or so from one end of the depot to the other."
THE EMPLOYEE VIEW - Paul Smith is an avionics technician with the RAF. Smith (for security reasons this is not his real name) has just completed the Train Into Rail course. "I've been in the RAF for 30 years but I'm definitely ready to leave - as long as I can find a job on civvy street," says Smith. The rail industry particularly appeals to him, he explains, because his skills are transferable and he wants a hands-on role. "The classroom elements of the training were variable," he admits," but I learned a lot about the different types of trains - and the age of some of them - as well as the rail companies and mechanical and safety systems. The depot was great though. It was just like the equivalent hangars in the services - if dirtier - and I felt at home immediately." He admits he feels nervous about the prospect of leaving the forces, but says the training was a real confidence booster. "I felt I could just slot right in. As soon as ATA Rail can place me with the right company, I'll be starting my new civilian life."