Skills strategies on the right track to deliver change

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 16

Nigel Eagers, project consultant at the National Skills Academy for Rail, writing on behalf of the High Speed Rail Industry Leaders (HSRIL), examines the latest skills strategies for rail.

You wait years for a skills strategy and then, like buses, two come along at once. January 2016 saw the publication of two transport-related strategy documents: The DfT’s Transport Industry Skills Strategy (TISS) and the Rail Supply Group’s (RSG’s) Fast Track to the Future, where investing in skills is one of four critical areas. 

The arguments for skills investment in rail are well rehearsed: ageing workforce; low staff turnover; lack of attractiveness of the sector; narrow talent pool; lack of workforce diversity at the same time as strong growth in demand; improved productivity; and large investment in existing and new rail networks such as HS2, coupled together with the advancing technical skills needed to run ever more complex rail systems. 

The government’s apprenticeship ambition of three million by 2020 – 20,000 of which will be delivered in the rail sector – to deliver this step change is applauded by the TISS. In particular, the push for high-speed rail in the UK will act as a catalyst for skills investment. HS2 will be the biggest investment in the skills base in decades, nurturing a new generation of world-class engineers and experts across a range of sectors. It will transform our infrastructure skills base including the creation of exportable skills, while making the UK a world leader in this growing economic sector. 

Ending the ‘first mover disadvantage’ risk 

Moving forward with this type of skills investment is a step in the right direction, albeit historic undertraining, particularly lower down the supply chain levels, will take some effort to address. Both strategies, through apprenticeships, policy drivers such as the levy and mandating employment of apprentices in public sector contracts, identify an important role for procurement to drive skills, ending the ‘first mover disadvantage’ risk. 

Apprentices are elevated in status, no longer confined to low levels but all the way to degree apprenticeships. The strengthening of technician apprenticeships (L3) has been a key part of National Skills Academy Rail’s (NSAR’s) work with the rail industry to develop a complete suite of apprentice qualifications from L2 (Operative) through L3 (Technician) to L4 (Advanced Technician), covering the whole industry: design, engineering, and operations. 

Hopefully support through the levy will reflect this full range of apprenticeships, especially if rail wants to take a bite out of the 40% plus of young people who now attend university. 

National network of skills excellence 

The TISS hints at the opening up of facilities to the sector; if this is code for opening Network Rail’s seven Workforce Development Centres, which have benefitted from a £55m investment, it is welcomed. 

Add these to the National Training Academy for Rail (NTAR), Northampton, the National College for High Speed Rail in Doncaster and Birmingham, potential centres in the north west and north east and, suddenly, rail training and skills development has leapt from Portacabins in station yards to a national network of excellent facilities aligned with a skills and employment brokerage supported, and quality assured, by NSAR. 

Both documents recognise that active promotion of transport industry careers is essential. Rail has a good story to sell and the industry needs to work together, with NSAR, to make rail a career of choice rather than one of default. If we don’t attract a diverse workforce the sector will lose out on half the talent pool. 

Rail recognises the importance of skills. The challenge is aligning the attraction of talent and developing people, ready, willing and able at the time they are required. The RSG document makes the case for shortening the time it takes to develop skills. NSAR’s skills intelligence enables the vital connection between attracting and developing talent and demand for skills from the industry. 

Skills are no longer tactical or reactive. It is highly significant that promotion, skills and apprenticeships have risen up the rail and government agenda to occupy a place of strategic importance. Not before time.

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