Amidst a backdrop of prolonged industrial action, in early 2023 there was very little positive sentiment towards train operators or train drivers. Social commentators and parts of the media had drivers firmly in their sights, angling to position them as public enemy #1. Regardless of public opinion around the role, recruitment must go on. Drivers move, change jobs or retire so maintaining a steady flow of fresh recruits is an essential operational function. Avanti West Coast also still had a long way to go in reaching its ambition of 50% of train driver applicants being female by 2030 so needed to accelerate its female recruitment drive, fast.
Insights and Strategic Approach
Through our research, including data analysis, stakeholder interviews and audience insight gathering, we identified two major barriers to attracting women to apply for a train driver role:
1. Visibility - Train driving was seen to be a ‘male’ profession and not something women could see themselves doing. We needed to shift this perception.
2. Recruitment process - the recruitment process itself was not designed to set women up to succeed. It needed an overhaul in its female friendly approach.
We knew female drivers existed - we had a number of case studies and we’d all been on trains with female drivers. So why was awareness so low, and who could help us elevate it?
Our research led to Karen Harrison, one of the UK’s first female train drivers and a trailblazer for women in rail.
A female friendly process:
During discussions with Avanti West Coast’s recruitment and HR teams, we found that the traditional recruitment process favoured male applicants. The role would only be seen by those searching for train driving jobs (usually men) and the application process would close once a maximum amount of applications was reached - often within a day or two. Women tend to give a lot of consideration to whether a job is right for them before making an application, two-three weeks v. a couple of days.
Often, by the time that decision had been made, the application process will have already reached its applicant limit and closed. That’s why we launched a whole month before applications opened and extended the application window to one week - with no limit on the total application numbers.
We also launched an innovative, industry-first social chat bot which explained what being a driver entailed and helped potential applicants assess their own suitability, counteracting the barriers which prevented women from applying.
Karen Harrison was one of the UK’s first female train drivers and vociferous campaigner. Applying under the name K. Harrison so that selectors didn’t know she was a woman, she fought harassment and sexual discrimination that was so common in the late 70’s to smash societal barriers and create a pathway for women to enter the drivers’ cab. Prior to her untimely death in 2011, Karen fought for the rights of other women, and minorities, in the rail industry.
Unlike many firsts however, her story isn’t widely known or recognised. That’s why we decided to make her famous. Working with world renowned muralist, Akse-19, we created an 8m x 5m mural of Karen using archive imagery from her training days and positioned it on platform three at Euston station - a busy thoroughfare with thousands of passengers passing by every day. However, we required buy-in from multiple stakeholders to do so:
- We needed 100% support from not only the Avanti West Coast Exec but the board of FirstGroup – Avanti West Coast’s parent company.
- Under post-Covid recovery measures, all comms activity needed to be approved by the DfT and as they wanted to use this as a pilot for the whole industry, we needed buy-in from all other Train Operators too
- Rail is a unionised industry, so anything involving drivers - be it changing the recruitment process, celebrating one of their own, or using drivers as case studies - needs backing from the union. So, we needed to get ASLEF, the Drivers’ Union, on side too.
- Finally, we also had to undergo months of negotiations with Network Rail to secure use of Euston station. We had to secure our space within the constraints of a slim PR budget, arguing against paying against commercial ad fees rates which would usually apply to such a prominent placement. After months of talking to various teams within the business we went directly to their CEO for permission, which was granted.
Our partners, Cubaka, then built the rail industry’s first ever social recruitment chatbot – designed to help potential trainee drivers understand more about the role. The interactive chatbot guided people through a series of questions to help them understand their suitability for the role and the perks of train driving, ahead of any formal application.
Through a steady persistent campaign and some UN level diplomacy from the Avanti West Coast PR team, we achieved the seemingly impossible: an idea on which the Government, train operating companies (TOCs), unions and drivers could all agree.
Raising Awareness: The campaign generated over 300 pieces of coverage (vs target 22), elevating awareness of the job application beyond Avanti’s LinkedIn pages. The blanket coverage spanned broadcast, national, consumer and regional titles.
Within this, positive coverage sentiment measured at 97.7%, with 90% featuring quotes from Avanti West Coast spokespeople.
Overall our initial awareness targets were smashed:
- Pieces of coverage
- Increase in engagement across Avanti West Coast's owned social channels
- Increase in CTR on social content
- Seven fold increasing in job page visits
- Increase in consideration of train driving as a career option amongst women
- Four fold increase in female applicants to the role
Driving applications: It is Avanti’s most successful recruitment campaign to date. The 2023 campaign saw quadruple the number of female applicants than all recruitment drives since 2020, with 1,500 women applying for the role.
Increase traffic to owned channels: On launch day, the landing page received more views than the timetable page – an unprecedented event. From Jan 26 to March 31, the average dwell time on the recruitment page was 3:52 – putting it in the top 5% of pages on the site.
Avanti West Coast’s social content generated a 758k organic reach, with 56,760 total engagements. Incredible, given the tricky environment train companies are navigating online. In addition, conversations were sparked across every social platform, but especially on Twitter where Avanti West Coast received positive posts for the first time in a considerable period.
Increased consideration: The chatbot had 14,349 completed sessions, with 1,312 females using the tool to see whether train driving was a profession for them.
Legacy: Beyond comms, Karen’s school also asked Avanti West Coast if they would attend their careers’ fair and The Railway Museum are featuring the mural in a permanent display.
Following overwhelming positive feedback from passengers, Avanti employees, the union and the industry sector, the mural is to become a permanent fixture at Euston Station in partnership with Network Rail.
Finally, when do you think the Rail Minister, Huw Merriman, and ASLEF General Secretary, Mick Whelan last gave a positive quote to a press release?!
Still can’t believe we’ve got this bloody campaign across the line, against all the odds... I’m actually quite emotional, I’ve welled up a little bit coming in to Euston watching it all unfold… What a mission it’s been to get us here. Thank you.Client,
Avanti West Coast: Pulling In The Right Direction
Tackling gender imbalance within the train driving profession, our fully integrated campaign enlisted the help of a true trailblazer in the field - Karen Harrison, the UK’s first female train driver, to generate a 4x increase in female applicants to trainee driver roles.