Davidson’s Stephen Veness on why the NSW market needs to maintain a diverse workforce.

Diverse Benefits.

As NSW faces its biggest infrastructure spend in history with billions being fueled into road and rail projects, the lack of women trained to work in these areas will become more apparent as the skills shortage continues to tighten.

NSW is Australia’s most populous state and the scale of the infrastructure projects planned for the next decade reflects this. Central to Transport for NSW’s project vision is a new 12 km Sydney Light Rail network for the CBD; a 12 km light rail project for suburban western Sydney and a light rail project for the northern NSW area of Newcastle. 

In addition to the new rail lines and light rail links, new trains will be purchased and an extensive road upgrade program is to be undertaken. The planned infrastructure projects for NSW include:

  • The ambitious Sydney Metro project, one of the biggest infrastructure projects undertaken in Australia’s history, which includes the building of eight new railway stations and a metro rail line connecting some outer suburbs to the CBD 
  • The NorthConnex tunnel project linking major motorways
  • The WestConnex improving road access from western Sydney to the CBD and airport

While many living in NSW and Sydney in particular, may applaud the decision of the government to invest in infrastructure, the pressing need is to find staff who can bring these projects to realisation. 

A gender data survey of the Australasian railway workforce conducted between April 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017 revealed there was still a very long way to go before the rail sector can claim to be truly inclusive. The Australasian Railway Association‘s Women In Rail 2017 report describes the rail industry as having ‘an ageing, male-dominated workforce’ but which has a “strong desire to actively improve the gender balance”.

“Rail is entering an exciting period as a result of unprecedented investment and expansion,” the organisation said. “This transformation provides rail with the unique opportunity to embrace change and improve the gender diversity of our workforce.

“Currently, rail organisations are at different stages of the gender diversity journey…The significant growth facing the industry provides the perfect leverage to initiate this change.”

The ARA gender data survey of the Australasian railway workforce garnered responses from 28,000 rail employees. The survey found that 99 per cent of the participating rail organisations in the survey have formal strategies in place to promote and support gender diversity in the workplace. And given the data, it is clear there is a pressing need to address the lack of diversity to be found on path to the senior level within rail organisations.

The survey found that 21 per cent of the Australasian rail workforce is women and they account for 19 per cent representation on the governing bodies and managerial positions of their rail organisations.

The ARA report showed that in leadership roles, women account for:

  • 10 per cent of CEO positions in the sector
  • 21 per cent of key management personnel
  • 19 per cent of executive/MD roles
  • 17 per cent of senior manager positions

In non-leadership roles, women account for:

  • 60 per cent of clerical/admin roles
  • 32 per cent of community and personal service role
  • 11 per cent machinery operators an drivers
  • 5 per cent trades
  • 13 per cent labourers
  • 25 per cent sales

While overall the statistics of female participation in this sector are average, they do in fact point to significant progress in the past decade or so with a growing awareness of the need to attract and retain strong women. 

There are programs underway to address this, including the Women in Rail Strategy, developed by the Australasian Railway Association which sets out pathways to increasing the participation of women in this sector. Increasingly we are seeing partnerships between the road, rail, engineering and infrastructure spaces with universities and vocational organisations where addressing the gender gap in STEM field is a key focus, with specific initiatives to promote, encourage and mentor women in these fields.

We need to develop more strategies – and support those already in existence – which encourage women working and living in Australia now, with transferrable skills, to consider careers in the building, engineering, transport and construction sectors.

There is no doubt this should be a priority, but until we can train up Australians to take on these roles, if we are to bring these planned infrastructure projects to completion, we will need to draw heavily upon talent pools in countries which have already undertaken and completed projects of similar scale and design.

While there are a number of strategies which can be employed to achieve this, the obvious starting point is to ensure we address any blocks to the hiring and retention of women in these fields, not least of all removing any unconscious bias in hiring practices.

The ARA in its Women In Rail report says there is a strong desire to improve the gender balance, but this will come to nothing if current hiring practices and unconscious bias are not overcome. If nothing changes in the way we hire, nothing will change in the level of female representation in these fields.

For some organisations, this may mean a period of re-education, for others it will be addressing bias in job advertising and for others still, it may mean implementing new tools such as psychometric and objective driven assessments.

As recruiters it is our job to make sure our clients in these sectors understand the need and value of a diverse workplace and guide them towards establishing one. If we don’t, we risk the grand ambitions of a modern transport system in NSW.


Stephen Veness is the Group Manager, Projects & Operations at Davidson and a Director with the Association of Professional Staffing Companies of Australia (APSCo). He is an experienced senior recruitment professional and Business Manager having worked across the UK and Australia. His specialisation is primarily in the heavy engineering sectors of oil & gas, mining and power generation.

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