Rail companies should upskill workers for shift to digital: EU Commissioner

The EU executive is encouraging companies in the sector to “take up reskilling commitments” for their employees to ensure workers aren’t left behind by digitalisation. [EPA/CHRISTOPH SCHMIDT]

The digitalisation of the rail sector will create “quality jobs” but many existing workers will need to reskill to meet the demands of new technology, according to EU employment commissioner Nicolas Schmit.

“Automation and digitalisation can and should create jobs, and often quality jobs. But to transition from one job into another, workers will need to develop the skills to integrate these technologies,” he said.

The EU executive is encouraging companies to “take up reskilling commitments” for their employees to ensure workers aren’t left behind by digitalisation.

The Commissioner made the comments at an event on employment and education in the rail sector on Tuesday (27 April) as part of the European Year of Rail. The event was organised by railway operators’ group CER in cooperation with Portuguese Railways and the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU.

He also outlined the EU executive’s wish to see new talent enter the rail sector, particularly women, who currently make up only around a fifth of employees, and young people.

“Younger generations are looking for green and meaningful occupations. Rail offers both the opportunity to promote sustainable transport and the opportunity to offer a service to people, to connect them across regions and borders,” said Schmit.

Austrian MEP Barbara Thaler said that while the EU should not push people towards any one sector or career path, it should help those that wish to work in rail but face a barrier to doing so.

“This means looking out for people who cannot pursue a degree in the field of mathematics or engineering because their socio-economic background would prevent them from doing so,” she said.

“In the case of women, there are still additional cultural restraints which need to be tackled, better today than tomorrow,” she added.

However, the rail sector’s stolid image may make it difficult to attract talent compared to rivals, warned Thaler.

“I cannot help but address the elephant in the room, which is competition – the competitiveness of the rail sector towards the road sector. To be more specific, the generated revenues and the resulting different opportunities each sector can offer highly skilled employees,” she said.

“If [the rail sector] wants to flourish, it needs to attract those highly gifted and hardworking individuals,” she added.

Thaler encouraged the sector to make key changes to attract more young people.

“If a person wants to be attractive for future employers, he or she needs to transform himself into someone who can offer a demanded set of skills. And the very same applies to the rail sector – it also needs to transform itself in order to be attractive and demanded as a mode of transport for customers and as an employer,” she said.

In a filmed address, Portuguese minister for infrastructure and housing Pedro Nuno Santos considered the effects of liberalisation on European railways. He warned that following the example of airlines could result in a slide in conditions for workers.

“In the airline industry, fierce competition has led to social dumping practices, which we most certainly don’t want to see repeated in the railways,” he said, referring to a practice in which companies undercut pay rates by employing low-paid, typically migrant workers.

“Many of the aspects of the rail market opening that has been carried out are inspired by the model of competition of the airline industry. We need to avoid the degradation of working conditions in the railways, and indeed across the whole labour market,” he added.

Santos also stressed the need to invest more heavily in rail to meet the EU’s green transport targets.

“Bringing more passengers and freight to our trains will not be possible while investment levels across Europe stay depressed, as they have been for more than a decade,” he said.

“More investment in the railways must mean more and better paying jobs, more opportunities for a fulfilling career, and in the end for the personal pursuit of happiness,” he added.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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