Returning to work on the railways

As Network Rail launches a new returner initiative, talks to Julie Houghton, Head of Asset Protection and Optimisation, about her own career trajectory and why she wants to help other women restart their careers.



Julie Houghton knows what it is like to start again. Her career started in retail; after taking time out to have children, she moved to the Post Office before ending up working on the rail network. Now Head of Asset Protection and Optimisation on Network Rail’s Anglia Route she is very well aware of the challenges of starting afresh and she wants to use that awareness to help others who have taken career breaks and are seeking a move to a new field.

Network Rail’s Anglia Route is launching a new initiative today. It is advertising for four returners on who will take part in a six-month returner programme, including the chance to get experience in a range of different departments and to return to work with tailored support and buddies.

Julie herself started her working life on the Lancome counter of her local Boots store in Croydon. She then moved around different stores in central London selling Lancome, ending up in a department store in Sutton before she gave up work to have her two children, now aged 33 and 35.

She spent the next five years at home with her son and daughter and when she did go back to work, after the family had relocated to the North, she was only doing a couple of hours filling up the greeting cards stand at a local post office. Julie’s career is marked by her taking any opportunities that came her way. When someone behind the counter was off sick she covered for them and soon had a shift every week. By 1992 she was running her own post office and started to help out in other post offices when people were on holiday. She also trained other post masters before joining the Co-op who ran post offices in store. By the end of her career in the Post Office Julie was area manager, looking after around 30 smaller post offices.

She was also doing an Open University degree and once she had graduated with a degree in ancient and classical studies, she started thinking there was more out there for her. She took voluntary redundancy from the Post Office in 2002.

A career on the railways

Julie finished work on a Friday and started her new job at Connex South Eastern on Monday. Her arrival coincided with the announcement that Connex had lost its franchise. Julie said that moving from the Post Office to the railways was challenging. “It felt so alien and different,” she says. “For the first few weeks I was not sure what I had done. People were in such shock about losing the franchise. They were feeling too much anger and grief to give any attention to this new person,” says Julie. That experience was to stay with her.

She was on the point of giving up after six months when she met up with then interim managing director Michael Holden. She told him she was thinking of leaving. After talking to her he recognised her potential and invited her to Head Office to work with then commercial director Janet Somerville.

“That was when I changed,” she says. Her manager mentored her and helped her realise that she had done something different in the past and could do so again. She did a master’s in change management and finance and moved to Network Rail as a sponsor in 2007. “I have not looked back since,” she says. She worked in enhancement and renewals and was fortunate to benefit from supportive line managers and two secondments, including one in asset protection.

Helping returners

Working at Network RailJulie says her experience means she is very keen to ensure anyone who comes into the rail industry from outside doesn’t feel as helpless and alone as she did initially. When Resourcing Business Partner Robyn Shane, who she had worked with on a reorganisation of asset protection, started talking about launching a returner initiative at Network Rail, Julie became very excited.

She passionately believes that the right support is needed to ensure people can do their jobs properly and she is keen to leave a legacy before she retires and to encourage fresh perspectives into the business.  She says other managers she has spoken to have been enthusiastic about offering work experience in their departments as part of the six-month returner programme. “We want the returners to have as wide an experience as possible so they can find a niche,” she says.

Those who apply do not have to have a background in an industry related to the railway sector. Indeed Julie says many jobs in the industry require transferable skills such as project management and that project management skills may also be developed outside work, for instance, through organising the school fete.

Julie and Robyn will be buddies to the four first returnees who will start in September. They will be given all the tools they need to do their jobs and will shadow other members of staff in different areas. They will also be helped to find permanent positions in Network Rail.

Flexible working

Julie says there is good female representation in senior roles in Network Rail’s Anglia Route – 40% of senior executive roles are occupied by women. However, she recognises there are problems, as in all industries, with attracting women into the industry who have taken time out and are worried about finding a job they can fit around their families. For her flexible working is vital and she says she would rather have someone who works 10am-2pm, but is fully focused than someone who does longer hours, but only gets a few hours of “solid work” done. She is keen to ensure returners have options that give them a proper career pathway and use their skills.

Julie herself works a compressed week so she can have a day off with her granddaughter. “It is important that I ensure I do the same thing I am encouraging other people to do,” she says. “It’s no good doing 50-60-hour weeks and burning out. It’s not good for the business either.”

Julie is proud of the mix of people who work in Network Rail’s Anglia Route and hopes the returner initiative will supplement this. She mentions a recent team event at which she got people to sign a book and say something about themselves that their colleagues didn’t know. It was revelatory. One man, for instance, had sparred with Mohammed Ali. “By getting to know each other and all the different experience we have as people, you swap ideas and learn,” she says.

*For more information on the returner scheme, click here.

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