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How bad is the volunteer crisis?

Discussion in 'Heritage Railways & Centres in the UK' started by Tim Light, Nov 22, 2016.

  1. Tim Light

    Tim Light Well-Known Member

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    Before anyone asks, no I'm not a volunteer and not planning to be one. Just a regular visitor to preservation sites up and down the country.

    We all know that there is a shortage of volunteer labour in the movement. How bad is it today? and how long before some of our preserved operations just can't carry on?

    I recently visited a railway ... not naming names as it wouldn't be fair ... for a guards van ride. I enjoyed it very much, and enjoyed chatting to the guard about the line's increasing passenger numbers and extension plans. However I was disappointed that their excellent book shop and the café were both closed. This was because there was nobody available to open them. Not for the first time in my experience. I visit this line fairly frequently and they seem to rely on the same half dozen or so people to operate the service, sell tickets and man the shop and cafes. And they are not getting any younger. Unless something changes, this line will grind to a halt in the next few years.

    More recently I visited the ELR for a round trip on the DMU. There was no obvious shortage of volunteers, but the average age was worryingly high (OK, I didn't do a survey but the all looked to be retirement age or higher). Surprisingly (to me) the age of the passengers was also generally similar. I thought there would be more younger people for a diesel event. This suggests to me that enthusiast-oriented events might become non-viable before the core family-oriented services.

    Any thoughts?
     
  2. Bean-counter

    Bean-counter Part of the furniture

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    I don't think there is a line that isn't worried about it - and perhaps therein lies a part of the problem! How attractive is it to join an organisation where everyone always looks worried and talk is full of doom and gloom? (How many 'how can it bpossibly last?' threads are there in NP at the moment?!?!?)

    Is there also a tendency to identify and 'wring hands' about the issue but not to make positive steps to do something about it? There can be many reasons why volunteers drop out, but the ageing workforce issue can perhaps be predicted. How many lines try to work out their future volunteer requirements and form plans, with targets set for recruitment and training? Most current operations have been around long enough to have experience of rates of people leaving, dropping out of training etc. and although we are all individuals and hence 'past performance may be no indication of future returns', such analysis forms a starting point for making solid plans. Hopefully, this is done for locomotive and carriage provision and infrastructure maintenance, is it done for 'staffing'?

    I have heard it said 'we are short of volunteers' and ' we can't handle any more new ones' almost in the same breath - again, recognise, address and plan to deal with this.

    And just how bad are things? In my experience, there is constant gloom and doom from certain elements is itself likely to discourage people, but trains run and levels of volunteer input were probably at record levels but all you ever heard about was the difficulty covering turns and how it was all too much. Yet in some areas, people were struggling to actually get turns - a problem that solves itself by them finding other places to go!

    There are huge challenges ahead - the end of 'early retirement' may mean more trained staff will be needed to cover the same amount of work because it may take 4 people on a day off to cover the turns 1 early retiree covered. However, working hours will become more flexible, some organisations already have shift patterns that may see the working week covered in 3 or 4 days (steam railways amongst them!) and holiday entitlements are probably at record levels.

    How hard do many railways try to recruit new volunteers? Where do they look? When youngsters find getting work difficult due to a lack of work experience, is not the ability to put 'volunteering in the regimented world of a railway' great experience to show on a CV? Jobs on the National Network are no longer seen as poorly paid or have the old 'working for BR' stigma amongst the young, and neither does/should applying for such jobs with heritage railway experience, which should be seen as a bonus!

    Perhaps the challenge is not so much the numbers of volunteers but changing how they are recruited and retained, and the mindset of those responsible for such tasks to examine new ways without at the same time abandoning what is known to work.

    Steven
     
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  3. Springs Branch

    Springs Branch New Member

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    If the DMU was running at the ELR recently then this would have been an ordinary running day, not an event. The ELR diesel galas, I understand, are commercially very successful and have started to attract the (around) 40 group who bring their families.
     
  4. Tim Light

    Tim Light Well-Known Member

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    It was meant to be a DMU event, but for some reason they ran a normal service with a DMU in one path and steam in the other.

    I enjoyed it anyway. Hated Bug Carts as a kid, but now I appreciate them a lot more. First generation DMUs that is.
     
  5. Jamessquared

    Jamessquared Nat Pres stalwart

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    Your view of the demographics of volunteers (and probably visitors) will tend to be influenced depending on whether you go on a weekend or midweek - gross generalisation, but generally the age profile will be higher in both categories mid week, as working age people will - well, be at work! My experience is that you tend to get younger volunteers (and a more family-profile visitor base) at weekends; and are more biased to older volunteers and older visitors mid week.

    Tom
     
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  6. I agree with Tim. However, I think there is something else at work here which people always overlook.

    This question reminds me very much of some of the hand-wringing you see on railway modelling forums about 'attracting youngsters to he hobby'. In this there seems to be a (completely ridiculous and inaccurate) assumption that if somebody isn't snared by an interest young in life, then they never will be.

    As a burgeoning old fart myself, I know many of my peers who have taken up pastimes and developed interests in things as they have hit their 40s and 50s... interests which they never had the slightest interest in as one of these infamous 'youngsters'. Amateur dramatics, family history research, buying an old car and doing it up, voluntary work of all kinds... even bowls... you name it, I am seeing people taking them up.

    If you see a lot of volunteers whose ages are 'worryingly high', it doesn't somehow mean that they are a species which will become extinct. As older people die off there is a constant supply of new older people to replenish them.

    I agree that there are more and more leisure distractions to attract people, but perhaps you visited said railway on public holiday type days when there is an inevitably smaller pool of volunteers, due to people being away on holiday or prioritising family matters? Perhaps better to visit on a quieter day?

    Just because 'youngsters' are growing up with their faces welded to X Boxes and iPads, it doesn't automatically follow that they will continue to do so all the way to the grave.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 22, 2016
  7. John Petley

    John Petley Part of the furniture

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    You're right but only to a point. Bean-counter mentioned the end of "early retirement" and he is right - people able to retire in their 50s on a good pension are now a very rare breed. That's only part of the issue. While some public sector workers may be able to retire in their early 60s on a decent pension, many of us in the private sector know that this isn't an option. I really enjoyed volunteering in my teens but now can only realistically expect to give a maximum of 4-5 days per year until I retire. I'd love to do more but just do not see retirement being a possibility this side of my 70th birthday. In other words, the "newer older people" may well end up being older when they finally have time to volunteer than the people who they replaced were when they started volunteering.
     
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  8. Springs Branch

    Springs Branch New Member

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    AFAIK, the DMU theme day was cancelled some time ago due to lack of available DMU's.
     
  9. Steve

    Steve Resident of Nat Pres Friend

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    All heritage railways will usually say that they are short of volunteers; the more the merrier. My impression of the two that I am involved with is that numbers aren't falling and there are younger ones coming onto the scene. What I do find to be worrying is the lack of the knowledge and skills relevant to operating a steam railway, especially with regard to technical skills (computing excepted!). Gone are the days when young lads would tinker with cars and other mechanical equipment and could instinctively take something to pieces. Even changing a plug is a thing of the past as most are moulded these days. Schools no longer have lathes to make things on or, if they do, they are only there for demonstration purposes.
    Another trend that I've noted is the reduction in numbers of volunteers on a Sunday. Once this was THE day for volunteering but, on both railways, it is now the hardest day of the week to cover with volunteers. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays seem to be the preferred days of the week.
     
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  10. baldric

    baldric Member

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    There has been a change I suggest to the busiest days visitor wise as well, I think there has been a decline on Sundays since the shops opened on Sundays, this is a personal observation rather than based on any known facts.
     
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  11. 73129

    73129 Part of the furniture

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    I've been volunteering for over twenty years now and I've noticed there are fewer people willing to volunteer on a perserved railway. I also think now Sunday trading laws have changed more people want to use Sunday as their weekly shopping day. There also seems to be more people volunteering at more than one perserved railway these days.
     
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2016
  12. Steve1015

    Steve1015 Member

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    Yes it does appear to be more common than when I started volunteering xx years ago.

    A railway has to be warm welcoming, offer good prospects eg you can see a future and goal rather than just bumble along, good training with an end goal (if you are good enough you will be promoted rather than just waiting your turn).
     
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  13. Tim Light

    Tim Light Well-Known Member

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    I didn't know it had been cancelled until I got there, but I enjoyed the DMU ride anyway.
     
  14. 35B

    35B Nat Pres stalwart

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    Is there a volunteer crisis?
     
  15. David R

    David R Well-Known Member

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    Steve

    Certainly some schools still have lathes that students can use - our 19 year old used both lathes and a band saw at his school between age 14 and 16. There may no longer be woodwork and metalwork as subjects but many schools still offer design technology (resistant materials) or similar subjects which require the use of machine tools to actually make things. OT to some degree but so many people assume H&S will have put an end to these sort of experiences at school that it's almost become self fulfilling

    David R
     
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  16. flying scotsman123

    flying scotsman123 Resident of Nat Pres

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    Agreed, I did DT up to GCSE and used lathes, milling machines, scroll saws, belt sanders, pillar drills, vacuum formers and laser cutters with the option of using a band saw, 3D printer and a CAM milling machine, but my projects didn't require them. Also used the usual collection of saws, chisels, and other hand tools as well, and in the lower years we learnt soldering and some very basic electronics, although sadly I don't think they do that bit any more.
     
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  17. Tim Light

    Tim Light Well-Known Member

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    Maybe there is. Maybe there isn't. Hence the question.

    But as stated in my opening post, I know one railway that is often (on my visits anyway) unable to staff its café and shop.
     
  18. Fred Kerr

    Fred Kerr Resident of Nat Pres Friend

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    Your simple question encapsulates a number of scenarios but IMHO the response can be summarised in the following thoughts :

    1) Volunteers arrive with a set of skills which they are willing to offer to a heritage line but sometimes the heritage line fails to understand either the skill or its potential value hence either reject, ignore or discourage the potential volunteer . An example of this, I would suggest, is catering where some lines seem to consider it offers little value but those lines which encourage catering seem to have little problem finding volunteers.

    2) Volunteers often arrive with skills they don't know that they have and a little time spent encouraging them could release that skill. Whilst such volunteers might take up staff / personnel time in the short term, a little encouragement might generate a long term volunteer who, once having identified a specific skill, might look to identify other skills that could be of value. I note that many railways are identifying staff dedicated to monitoring volunteers but there is no common policy yet to my mind a Volunteers Officer (VO) role is - in many ways - as important a role as the General Manager (GM) in that the VO brings in and encourages volunteers whilst the GM places them in roles that develops and retains them and their skills

    3) Encourage Society to value the skill sets from volunteering. An example of this in Society is the value of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme where Employers value the candidate with that Award on their CV above candidates without it. In some cases skills gained by volunteers on heritage lines has led to full employment within the railway industry so is there value in heritage lines working with railway companies to provide training facilities and qualifications. On the wider employment market some skills can be transferred to other sectors (e.g. catering; engineering; publicity etc) so volunteers should be encouraged to identify skills gained through their voluntary work.

    Simplistic perhaps but sometimes it's the simplest things that provide the greatest benefit.
     
  19. paullad1984

    paullad1984 Member

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    I know of one line, won't say which, where if you have experience at say being a guard will make you go out track working for a while..... how many potential volunteers would they loose this way?
     
  20. northernsteam

    northernsteam Member

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    At my local railway there is a stalwart band of elderly skilled volunteers who, given the right leading, will and do attempt a multitude of jobs involved in the engineering maintenance etc. There is also a band of younger ones who are keen to drive and fire and learn from those who able to show them how to do jobs. I believe that there is also a good group of folk who do the other necessary jobs when the place is open to the public. Perhaps we are lucky that we are in the middle of a large metropolis and folk can get to us easily, it is not a big railway so the work is not too onerous, well, not always!
    In my other group, which has engines to look after and run etc, they have developed a Junior Volunteers section with several youngsters joining up and getting involved, under very careful supervision, in all the work required in engine maintenance, and some of the fun part as well.
    Yes, we always need more volunteers. it is not just in Heritage Railways but in all the multitudes of organizations around us. Charities, social care, churches, youth work, you name it. It needs people to take an interest in life and do something with that interest instead of just talking about it, I am sure all those in NP will agree with that point.;)
    Age need not be a barrier, if you offer help of any kind most charities will find a use for your time.
     
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