Identifying Talent from Outside the Rail Sector

The majority of our rail clients tell us time and time again that they are open to bringing in talent from aligned industries, which in theory sounds great. The reality, however, when we begin to work with these organisations on headhunting assignments, is that the skills and knowledge required for complex and business critical roles need to be so in-depth that only sector experience will do.

I have written many times about the dreaded ‘skills gap’ in rail and the lack of readily available talent in the industry, every hiring manager knows what a big this problem is. But there are some areas of your business where demand for high calibre individuals is fierce and your organisation could benefit from an injection of new thinking from outside the sector.


The question here is, “who are you selling to?” Obviously, the perfect situation here would be that you engage with candidates who are extremely well networked in the rail industry and have a detailed knowledge of the routes to market in order to succeed. The reality, however, is that these individuals are highly unlikely to be active in the job market and if they are performing well in their current role they will be rewarded financially as a result.

The chances are that your sales and marketing team will be engaged with procurement, supply chain and commercial managers the majority of the time, which is similar in a vast amount of industries, therefore a good candidate from any aligned industry should be more than comfortable in dealing with people at this level.

What is your product/service, and the sales and marketing process you use to get to clients? Whether it is a specification based sales or the need to offer bespoke services for each individual client. No-one really has a truly unique sales process and it is likely that other engineering and innovation-driven industries will have high-quality individuals who are well used to the process that you use yourself.

Anybody coming into your organisation from a sales and marketing perspective will have a learning curve to overcome in the first few weeks, and though it might take someone from outside of the industry slightly longer to get up to speed and learn the associated terminology. These roles offer a tangible return on investment, thinking long-term, how fantastic could someone with the right attitude and a proven skillset be in the future, even though they don’t have exposure to the Rail industry at this moment in time.


How technical is the role? If for example, the role requires detailed knowledge of signalling principles, then it is highly unlikely that you can bring someone in from outside. As the industry becomes more and more technically driven, roles are becoming a lot more specialist.

We’ve been able to help a lot of our clients in more senior positions within engineering. The more strategic the role, the less hands-on it is and therefore easier it is to bring someone in who doesn’t necessarily have the detailed knowledge of the product area. Essentially, a strategically driven Engineering Director or Head of Engineering is there to lead a team and the business in an effective way. Our experience shows that bringing people in from outside of the industry has been beneficial to clients, as there is very little compulsion to get stuck into the operational intricacies side of things and focus remains on leadership, strategy and business improvement. 

Most engineering roles become ‘problem areas’ for our clients for the simple reason that the target market of candidates is so small and very few of them are active job seekers. Often engineering roles have been vacancies with our clients for 12+ months, leaving them with a big dilemma and a bank of work that needs to be picked up elsewhere. Given the timeframes associated with employing people into these roles, it is arguable that someone could come in with the required engineering discipline and learn the technical side of the role in a shorter length of time than it takes to wait for the ‘ideal candidate’ to finally appear on the market.


This is always a tricky one as it really depends on what you do as a business. An Operations Director in a component manufacturer, for example, will have a different remit to those in operating companies etc, so in which areas can we be open to talent coming in from different areas?

If you run a manufacturing or engineering organisation, then it is likely that, as good as your processes are, they are not all 100% unique to your organisation. We have found that the core competencies required for Operations roles are very similar to other industries that we work in, such as aerospace and building product manufacturing. Much like in engineering, the higher ‘up the ladder’ you go, the less you need to know about individual product ranges. As roles become more strategic, the experiences in improving business performance and the ability to lead teams really take over from hands-on rail experience.

For TOCs, freight operators, leasing companies and other more operationally focused organisations, it is harder to find alignments in other industries. The ability to keep a complex network of Trains running 24/7 is not really a transferable skill or something that you can do without having a number of years’ experience. But offering world-class customer service, health and safety, leading large diverse teams and managing relationships with external stakeholders are all key elements in a number of industries. Again, it does really depend upon the remit, we have worked with smaller TOCs who require the Operations Director to manage timetables of trains etc. and we’ve also worked with larger organisations where these elements are covered by people within the team.

This is a selection of a just a few roles where we can explore different options in recruitment. Given Collingwood’s exposure to a number of different industries, we are able to offer this advice to our clients regularly. For further information on this and examples of where we have been able to bring in talent from aligned industries, give us a call today.