Railway is a sunrise industry, not only in Southeast Asia but in many parts of the world. Most countries still lack talents in rail, and Asia is certainly no exception.
In light of rapid developments in the Southeast Asian region and globalization around the world, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) governments continue to strive to maintain certainty while speeding up integration and community-building efforts. ASEAN cooperation throughout the rail industry accelerates integration and community building by attempting to establish efficient, integrated, safe, and environmentally sustainable regional corridors that link member states, as well as countries beyond its sphere of influence.
The most flagship and transport infrastructure project within the ASEAN region is the Singapore Kunming Rail Link (SKRL). The SKRL flagship project was originally proposed at the 5th ASEAN Summit in December 1995 with a projected completion of 2015. It covers several routes through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Kunming, and spur lines in Thailand and Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. The SKRL project has been a priority item on the ASEAN transport cooperation agenda and the political motivation to complete the SKRL is quite strong. First the eastern line must be completed, which links Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam together, in order to have a fully operational railway link between Singapore and China (via Kunming) as soon as possible.
But ASEAN governments have not agreed upon a final plan for the SKRL. The scale of the project is debated on a monthly basis and each country in the organization has been preparing for the rapid growth of urbanization that will accompany it. Considering the region is flooded with new rail technologies, the development and management of human resources within the rail industry has become more challenging than ever for regional governments and businesses, especially when it comes to technology transfers.
Thailand needs more talent
The rail transport infrastructure in Thailand has become a priority agenda as a result of the Thailand 4.0 scheme, which aims to create creativity and innovation through the application of technology, and the connectivity initiative among Southeast Asian countries and beyond. Thailand is eager to complete a high-speed rail project in tandem with domestic projects in order to keep up with the rapid urbanization currently taking place. Thus, an increase in the pool of rail industry talent is required to drive growth in this sector.
Speaking with Rail Professional – Asia Pacific, Ditsapon Padungkul, president of the Thai Railway Engineering Association (TREA) said that research from Mahidol university, a respected research university in Thailand, suggested ten years ago that the country should have produced 20,000 graduates in rail sector curricula. Disapon further stated that universities and rail operators have been offering courses pertaining to rail engineering and industry; however, the number of graduates remains insufficient. He said Thailand does not own any railway technology, and thus, the majority of graduates gain only a superficial knowledge. Even then, they still lack a fundamental understanding of technology that was brought into the country when projects were implemented.
According to Nakhon Chantasorn, advisor to the President of the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) and former governor at the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), leading universities such as Chulalongkorn University, Mahidol University, and Kasetsart University Rail Engineering Center (KURail) in which programmes in rail engineering have been arranged by University of Newcastle upon Tyne and Kasetsart University, as well as other colleges, offer courses related to rail engineering and industry. However, the number of graduates in these programs is insufficient: 44 students graduated in rail engineering in 2013; 57 students in 2014; and 58 students in 2015. In a nutshell, Thai rail engineering and industry needs drastically more talent if it is going to support the rapid growth of urbanization and numerous new project developments.
Talent is being prepared for Malaysia’s new projects
A commitment to become one of the world’s leading high-income countries by 2020, rapid urbanization, and the ASEAN connectivity agenda have all encouraged Malaysia to expand, enhance, develop, and improve its domestic rail industry. According to the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), more than 150 organisations were identified as supporting rail operations in Malaysia, while only approximately 60 organisations were directly involved in rail-related activities. Since the 1990s, more than RM100 billion have been invested in rail-related activities in Malaysia. With a total employment of more than 9,000 workers in Malaysia’s rail industry, turnover is just over 3.5 percent. However, the country remains in short supply of the required human capital.
Norlia Noah, project director for the LRT3 Project at Prasarana Group, told Rail Professional – Asia Pacific that there are currently 80,000 professionals working in the rail and bus industry. Although she did not mention the exact number of professionals in the rail industry alone, Prasarana looks to train more talent to replace current foreign experts, which are still needed for some sectors (e.g. signalling, civil engineering, electrification, etc.).
Jobs in the rail industry are not immensely attractive to the younger generation in Malaysia, and MIGHT believes this is because the public’s perception of the industry is diminished when compared to the likes of automotive, aerospace and maritime sectors. The absence of rail-related courses offered by local universities makes it difficult for the industry to conduct retraining programs.
MIGHT explained that there are currently a few institutions which are developing a rail industry workforce, mostly conducted in-house, while others are works in progress. Poaching within the industry, and migration to other trades or abroad is hindering the industry from sustaining local employment, especially among short-term projects. Another reason for the shortage of human capital is the necessity for multi-disciplinary studies in order to keep up with the latest technological developments.
Likewise, Noah said there are no colleges or universities in Malaysia currently offering courses in rail engineering or rail industry-related subjects. As an example, she clarified that Prasarana hires professionals whose expertise and educational background is suited for particular jobs. An engineer may be hired to implement a civil work project if his educational background is in civil engineering or if he previously worked in a civil engineering capacity. To enable this engineer to work effectively, Prasarana provides in-house training and provides him with a professional certificate. They view this as the ideal way to address the shortage of professionals and to help recruit more local talent to replace existing foreign experts.
Internal trainings offered by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) Berhad and Rapid KL involve various courses such as railway operation, track maintenance, product development, management and leadership, and signalling and communication. Meanwhile, ADTEC and ILCM offer training in general and technical skills such as maintenance techniques, mechanics, metallurgist, precision techniques, NDT inspection, welding, and more. Siemens and Bombardier offer customised training in safety engineering, operation engineering, maintenance engineering, welding techniques, inspection engineering, incident management and a train-the-trainer program. Finally, the Ministry of Human Resources, the Ministry of Higher Education, the Malaysian Qualification Agency, SIRIM, MITRANS, and Jabatan Tenaga Manusia contribute to these with policy support, policy standards, and certifications.
Malaysia is highly dependent on foreign suppliers. Existing railway equipment and rolling stock was imported as part of the drive to modernise rail transport in the country. In the near future, the means to manufacturer and maintain domestic rolling stock will be an important factor for the long-term sustainability of the local rail industry. Ultimately Malaysia needs to take specific measures to deepen the industry while also promoting local talent.
Trainings for long-term manpower requirements in Singapore
Throughout Southeast Asia, the rail industry in Singapore has been known as one of the best employers in the region. Although, because local technology and talent remains inadequate Singapore still buys foreign technology and hires foreign experts.
Silvester Prakasam, director of the Fare System at Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA), told Rail Professional – Asia Pacific that the LTA is short 200 engineers despite ongoing advertising campaigns to recruit new talent to fill in these positions. Prakasam said there are not many rail-related courses in Singapore’s universities or colleges in particular, but the LTA provides in-house trainings for its workers.
In April 2016, the LTA announced a plan to establish the Singapore Rail Academy (SGRA). The academy will offer dedicated trainings to help rail engineers and maintenance crew improve their skills and keep up with changes in technology. The LTA said in a press conference during the introduction of this plan that the rail industry in Singapore currently employs over 6,000 workers for rail operations and maintenance, more than half of which are engineers and technicians. To support the rail network expansion to 360 kilometres by 2030, it is estimated that an additional 5,000 workers will be needed. The SGRA will therefore be instrumental in developing adequate capacity and ensuring that standards for rail engineering, operations, maintenance and safety will meet the demands of the expanded rail network.
The LTA further stated that Professor Cham Tao Soon, former president of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and former chairman of SIM University, will lead the establishment of SGRA. At the same time, Singapore’s Transport Ministry will be working with the National University of Singapore (NUS) and NTU to ensure that final-year engineering modules include rail engineering. The LTA is expected to actualise this academy by the second half of this year. Under training programmes, the academy will work with local rail operators to develop and implement a rail industry competency framework in conjunction with the Singapore Skills Framework (SSF) to raise standards across the industry. In addition, the SGRA will also collaborate with Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLS) and local rail operators on the design and subsequent delivery of training programmes to deepen Singapore’s rail engineering capabilities.
March 2016 saw another development of human resource management in Singapore: seven rail engineers from the SMRT became the first in Singapore to receive an engineering accreditation recognising their skills and experience in their respective professions. The staff hailed from various specialised fields including rolling stock, maintenance and rail infrastructure, and they are the first batch of chartered engineers in railway and transportation engineering. This Singaporean chartership has already been available for other engineering fields such as aerospace and marine, but the provision for the rail sector was introduced in May 2015. This accreditation is awarded by the Institution of Engineers Singapore, where candidates must to be successfully assessed by a panel of rail industry experts before earning the “CEng” title.
Josephine Teo, senior minister at State for Transport, told local media in Singapore that the chartership for rail engineers would help meet the increasing demand for engineering talents in Singapore.
Cambodia’s rail industry needs attention
Despite its small size, Cambodia has a wealth of ambition to catch up with the international rail industry. Located in a central, and strategic area of Southeast Asia, Cambodia aims to connect itself with neighbouring countries such as Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand in an effort to bring itself opportunities for trade wealth and connectivity.
Ouk Sota, deputy director of Cambodia’s Railway Department under the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, told Rail Professional – Asia Pacific that new technology has arrived, but the country lacks enough talent to deal with technology transfers. He added that Cambodian rail professionals are often educated in Russia and Vietnam, but still lack experience in project management, engineering, railway project budget management, railway conference topic preparation, and working with operators. Sota further elaborated that Cambodia does not have any colleges or academies that offer rail-related courses.
“Our government has never concentrated on our railway industry,” said Sota, “But we get financial support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other foreign aid entities.”
Sota said Cambodia’s railway department received approximately US$84 million from ADB, US$21.5 million from an Australian grant, around US$13 million from an OPEC/OFID loan, US$2.8 million from the Malaysian government, and US$20.3 million from the Cambodian government. The total sum is US$141.6 million and is not just for human resource development; it finances every sector of the rail industry in Cambodia – a sum which is far from sufficient.
Cambodia also looks for talent to support its future rail development and plans. But it needs educational institutions to offer rail-related courses in order to produce more talent. Foreign experts are hired to work with local professionals, but as with any country, Cambodia would prefer to provide jobs for their homegrown talent.
Cambodia has an ambitious project to link Siem Reap to Svay Rieng via a high-speed railway that connects with Phnom Penh. Other connections that make Cambodia very competitive for investment are between Thailand and Phnom Penh (expected to finish by the end of 2016); Vietnam and Cambodia through Bat Doeung and Snoul (expected to be connected by 2020); and Cambodia’s northern provinces with Laos from Snoul to Stung Treng. All of these connections are also part of the SKRL agenda.
Indonesia’s talent shortages remain a challenge
Over the past few years, Indonesia has made huge headlines for introducing various “mega projects,” including the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, Jakarta-Surabaya high-speed railway, Jakarta MRT, Trans-Java, and more. Indonesia has received increased attention from Russia, China, and Japan, who are all hoping to get their market share. Although these projects are in progress, Indonesia’s rail industry still remains short on talent.
Paul D. Giammalvo, senior technical advisor from PT. Mitratata Citragraha, said 44 percent of the projects in Indonesia struggle to attract qualified craft labour, while 45 percent lack planners and project managers. He said organisations with fewer full-time project staff spend more on capital expenditures per employee, adding that 69 percent hire from external sources and more than five percent of the total workforce on a per project basis.
After working with local contractors in Indonesia for a long time, Giammalvo told Rail Professional – Asia Pacific that professionals in the Indonesian rail industry are flexible. He elaborated that a labourer can start work in one sector and when the project is completed, go work in other sectors similar to the first job. This frees up Indonesian rail professionals to be “Jack of all trade” workers. Giammalvo explained that many jobs require the same basic skills and there is no need to train workers or send them to rail-related colleges, which Indonesia does not have, when new projects are implemented.
Giammalvo said more talent is needed before more projects can begin, but there are no rail-related courses offered at colleges and universities. Indonesia survives the shortages of talent by employing professionals who have common and basic knowledge and skills to deal with similar jobs despite working on different projects. For instance, he said those who have civil engineering degrees and experience can work for both road and rail projects without difficulties.
India’s huge pool of talent
The Indian Railways is the backbone of the country’s service sector and one of the biggest employers in India, where the service sector provides vast opportunities for HRD. The Indian Railways is enriched with fixed assets such as 64,015 route kilometres, 7,030 railway stations, and 130,776 railway bridges. Research by V. Rajeswari and K. Santa Kumari from the Department of Economics at Sri Venkateswara University stated that the total strength of Human Resources in Indian Railways is valued at INR13.3 million during the year of 2010-2011.
Speaking with Rail Professional – Asia Pacific, Jagannath A. Rao, head of the Quality Department at Airbus Defence and Space of Airbus Group India stated that India always has a big pool of talent, but never enough to fill positions that require specific expertise such as installation, signalling and rolling stock, which still require foreign consultants.
“Most of our experts are still foreigners,” said Rao.
Rao reiterated that the number of professionals in the Indian rail industry is enough, but having domestic experts is an ideal. He added that each railway sector receives financial supports, 50 percent from local governments and 50 percent from the central government. This money goes toward financing all of the rail sectors, including human resource development. Consequently, the Indian government pays a lot of attention to the country’s railway industry, regardless of the troubling foreign assistance.
Rao said that despite the pool of talent, India does not offer proper rail-related courses in colleges or universities, adding that Indian Railways provides training courses for its professionals. He did, however, suggest that a Rail Engineering course will be conducted in the future in universities in Mumbai.
Meanwhile, Rajeswari and Santa Kumari said the training and development at Indian Railways is one of the most important aspects of human resource management. They added that Railway Staff College and the six Centralised Training Institutes within Indian Railways impart training and development for officers to develop into world class executives. About 1,571 Gazetted officers are trained every year. They render yeomen’s service in the Indian Railways.
Rajeswari and Santa Kumari further explained that the number of staff trained at the Zonal Railway Institutes in the Indian Railways was 319,910 during the year 2008-2009. However, they said the number of staff trained has increased substantially each year.
Talent in rail industry today and the future
The rail industry has emerged in Southeast Asia and beyond as a main vehicle for socio-economic development. Railway is a sunrise industry, not only in Southeast Asia but in many parts of the world. Most countries still lack talents in rail, and Asia is certainly no exception. Thailand needs more local talent that truly understands technology. Malaysia has been training new talent and reducing the number of foreigner experts. Singapore is looking for new local talent to be trained and certified for the long-term manpower requirements. Cambodia needs more investment in new talent, while also looking for new opportunities from foreign investments. Indonesia is surviving in spite of the talent shortage, but that will have to change soon. The Indian Railways has a big pool of talent, but as of yet has not begun investing in human resource development.