Regulator finds dire SA rail safety skills shortage

The SA Railway Safety Regulator called for a centralised, accredited railway safety skills body to standardise skills in the rail network, and attract trainees.

South African Railway Safety Regulator risk and corporate governance manager Stanley Khosa, and senior researcher Mabila Mathebula, said skills shortages at rail operators raised transport safety risks.

They said a safe railway environment required an assessment of skills shortages and future skills demand. Below is an extract from their position paper published in February 2013.

The Railway Safety Regulator has traditionally focused on safety-critical grades, but supply and demand for railway expertise at all occupations and skills levels was needed.

The second leg of the project will be empirical research by way of surveys at stakeholders in the rail transport industry, to develop a demand projection model for the rail industry.

The Railway Safety Regulator’s mission is to “oversee and promote safe railway operations through appropriate support” and a near-term objective to be “a recognised authority in the provision of railway safety expertise”.

Railway Safety Regulator concerned

The Railway Safety Regulator are concerned about the lack of consistency in the strengths of skills of staff throughout the rail network. Investigations into recent accidents and incidents highlight errors and violations of staff as primary causes, with shortfalls in actions by more senior staff, such as safety related decisions, or assurance, as a contributing factor.

Railway Safety Regulator
Skills shortages at rail operators raise rail safety risks

The rail operators body Prasa, cited “an acknowledged shortage of key skills, as well as a lack of depth of skills in critical areas in PRASA.” Transnet has cited the loss of operational critical skills as one of their major risks.

Executive, front line operational and engineering roles are of overpowering importance in delivering railway safety performance. Key skills required for modern approaches to railway safety management, such as strategic safety management, risk assessment, auditing and accident investigation, are at the premium.

This study included these skills:

  •  Functional (Train drivers, Train Control Officers  (TCO) and Railway Operation Management)
  • Technical and Engineering (Engineering, Engineering Technicians and Artisans)
  • Leadership positions (Management and Supervisors).

Exxaro CEO Sipho Nkosi called the skills issue in South Africa a “national crisis”. The Solidarity Research Institute Report noted, “there is definitely a skills shortage in South Africa,,, for Artisans, Technician and Engineers;

  • South Africa had 10% of the artisans it had 20 years ago
  • 40% shortage of artisans
  • Griniker LTA has had to import welders from Malaysia, Ireland and India
  • Sasol imported 1300 Thai artisans and welders
  • SA has one engineer per 3200 people, compared to 1:130 in China, 1:270 in Europe, 1:450 in Australia (SAICE).
  • SA produces 1400 engineering graduates per year, against a demand for 2400 per year.

Many other countries also face a shortage of industrial professionals. Signal engineers and civil engineers are in short supply.

Lack of railway safety research

In South Africa railway research is curiously backwards, due to fragmentation of the industry, the Rail Road Association serving two masters. There is no authority in South Africa representing the interests of the entire railway industry. Hitherto no research has been conducted in South Africa on skills shortages.

There is no single data source that provides acceptable accurate data on the employment of workers in railway occupations at the level of details required for the estimation of current skills shortages and the development of forecasts.

Differences occur in sectorial occupation and education classification system. Even the Labour Force surveys provide little information on the railway industry, for example transport is not broken down into modes and railway occupations are not mentioned.

Railway safety skills strategy

Transnet has a skills strategy via capacity building, talent management and leadership development, and aims to;

  • Build and maintain feeder pipelines to grow internal and national skills base;
  • Implement quality, business aligned training for priority and critical skills;
  • Align skills planning to attracting and retention of key skills;
  • Strengthen supervisory, management and leadership capability;
  • Build strong and competent School of Rail (SoR) Practitioners and business partners.

Railway safety skills recommendations

The Railway Safety Regulator suggested solutions to the problem of skills shortages in the South African railway industry include:

  • Empirical study to develop fact-based strategies for attraction, recruitment and retention of employees in the railway industry, from information held within the railway industry.
  • A centralised, national, accredited, railway safety skills body to drive consistent and uniform standards for key safety skills throughout and across the network.
  • A school-based traineeship for senior secondary students while completing Grade 11 and Grade 12. On leaving school many of the trainees may go on full-time employment with the same employer.
  • Pre-employment program via traineeship, apprenticeships and other roles for successful candidates.

The Railway Safety Regulator also notes the need for a strategic partnership with engineering and health and safety training organisations, recruitment agencies and labour hire companies, railway companies should expand the pool of potential applicants for positions.

There is also an urgent need to create a national training academy notes the Railway Safety Regulator. This will require all stakeholders who are competitors with seemingly different objectives and philosophies to be prepared to share information and to develop national strategies for the attraction, recruitment and retention of future employees for the common benefit of the industry.

• This report is an extract from a detailed, reviewed and referenced report of February 2013, available from the SA Railway Safety Regulator.

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