Sometimes there is no right answer. And that’s fine.

Neil Franklin, Head of Skills Intelligence at the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR), needed to take a double-decade leap into the unknown. I find out how it went.

The objective: predict an entire industry’s skill needs to meet changing technology
The unknown: “Do it for the next 20 years.”

What’s been your biggest challenge when dealing with the unknown?

“Eighteen months ago I was asked to forecast all the future skills needs for the rail industry… for the next 20 years.

“The scale of this challenge was very different. Previous models and studies have focused on one part of the industry only — this was the entire industry, plus roads, and for some time into the future.”

That’s a major piece of prediction.

“Yes, it was a big job. Historically it had been done in piecemeal fashion via spreadsheets and complex macros, but also by gut instinct and with different assumptions. Rail has a traditional, historical way of working, one not fit for today’s modern environment.

“In truth there was no accurate industry picture for the number of people required to deliver future investment and the skills they would need to meet emerging technology.”

Perspective 2How did it feel to not know the answers — or even be close to them?

“Inevitably it felt exciting, and not surprisingly I was slightly nervous… Get it wrong and you lose credibility. Lose credibility and no one will listen to you again. So there was significant personal and reputational risk riding on the outcomes of the study.

“It was a challenge, but ultimately I was more concerned about the robustness of the process than the final numbers. Better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.”

How do you mean?

“It was about understanding there was no right answer. Once I stopped getting hung up on only being able to approximate the numbers, then I felt less anxiety about having to come up with the definitive answer. There wasn’t one. Whether we’d need 9,877 or 10,200 traction and rolling stock people, I knew I needed about 10,000. And that was good enough.”

So what was your own method for tackling this unknown?

“Look at it from a different angle. Think output first. So I painted a picture of what information would lead me to a conclusion. What did I need to know: regional needs, gender demographics, money being spent in a certain area?”

“And of course it was about teamwork. There is a small team that works with me, and we couldn’t have achieved what we did if we’d worked in isolation. Almost daily meetings, using projectors, whiteboards, flip-charts etc to share progress, issues and results all helped create a shared purpose. People have to feel they’ve made an emotional connection to the outcome. If they’re on board, then they will work with you.”


It worked?

“Yes. We are now providing the raw skills and workforce intelligence to the Department for Transport, and to industry leaders for rail and soon for roads and highways too. It’s an important piece of work. It helps influence government policy, and the analysis allows the industry to invest in future skills by showing the long term, sustainable demand is there. It also gives the industry a lot of credibility in dealing with the Treasury.

So can you let it go now?

“No, I don’t think I ever can! I’m deeply proud of the work. It’s taken a year of development and it’s still exciting, still fun. However I’m aware of the data limitations and we’ll keep adapting. You never know all the answers.”

Looking back, what advice would you give others facing the unknown?

“I think it demonstrates that if you create the right environment, teamwork will typically provide you with the results you need. Be open to challenge, be open to debate, create an environment where people feel they can contribute, regardless of age, background or experience, and you can come to a sensible conclusion. Plus you bring the team with you, so they are emotionally connected, which instills pride in the work output.

“As long as you embark on a journey with a vision of what success looks like, it will be relatively straight forward.”


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Emma Higginson-Smith


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