Rail Industry Focus

01.05.12

'A radically different approach'

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Apr/May 2012

NSARE, the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering, is at a crucial stage: it is in the middle of the first wave of inspecting the industry’s training providers, it is developing a new National Competency Database of every engineer/ technician working in rail, and updating its skills forecasting of the jobs the industry will have and need over the coming years. Adam Hewitt talked to NSARE’s Elaine Clark, head of process development, and Bill Alexander, head of training and skills.

Soon, every railway worker in this industry will find their details, qualifications and safety-critical competences logged on a central database so that industry employers know they are qualified to undertake the work they are doing.

The new database is a key part of what NSARE plans to develop into a broader ‘skills passport’ for all railway engineering workers, that will allow them to prove they have the right training, competences and certification, and also emphasise to employers their own additional skills and ancillary achievements gained through continuing personal development.

Who’s who

The database will also be a key tool in preparing in-depth skills forecasts providing baseline information for the entire industry, developing a long-term skills forecast helping to work out exactly what skills are needed in what area, likely retirement patterns, and so on, matched against investment plans for the entire industry.

The database was initially developed for the National Skills Academies for Nuclear and Process Industries. Elaine Clark, head of process development at NSARE, told RTM: “Those industries are not dissimilar to ours: highly regulated industries where safety is critical.

“They also wanted a national approach to recording people’s training records, qualifications, and other data, though they are using their systems slightly differently to ours, they are recording qualifications and training records rather than discrete competences, but the bones of the system are the same, it’s built in the same way.”

One tool, three uses

NSARE has been touring the country recently explaining its radically different approach to training and accreditation, and also explaining to training providers and other industry bodies the potential uses for its new database. Some audience members have, however, expressed concerns about whom exactly the database is for, and who will benefit from accessing the data.

We put that question to Clark, who told us: “It’s predominately for employers, or will be once the database is live. Employers will be able to use it to see what competences their staff have, while individuals will be able to use it as a ‘record of achievement’ that will transfer with them when they move from job to job.

“We are also in discussion with industry representatives about the opportunity to streamline existing competence checking processes so that our database becomes the single point of reference for all engineering and safety competences, with the potential to significantly reduce costs across the industry.”

Bill Alexander, head of training and skills for NSARE, added: “Also, above that, there’s the advantages for the whole industry: it will help us understand exactly what we’ve got around skills, allow us to forecast to determine what sort of skills profile we’ll need in the future based on what we’ve got now. It’s one tool that fits three different needs.”

Importantly, only employers and accredited providers will be able to upload the data on their employees’, or trainees’, competencies. Employees will be able to add their own ancillary data – things they do in their spare time, such as languages spoken or relevant hobbies, perhaps, which contribute to continuing personal development – where verification is not needed and safety is not an issue.

Alexander explained: “There are legacy issues: if I took a course 15 years ago, that knowledge doesn’t always give me a competence as such, but the mere fact I’ve done a course on designing signalling, say, is an interesting thing for an employer. Because it’s so historic, it probably couldn’t be verified, but it does provide important information that gives contextualisation to individuals’ abilities.”

Ease of access

There are also future aspirations to extend the database to make it a place where employees can access information, learning and assessments by smartphone or tablet, and gather evidence of their development as they work and learn, for example by taking photos, videos or audio logs they can upload into their own personal CPD area.

They would also be able to check their progress towards their professional engineering or other competence framework.

All of this is hosted on an IT system known as the Skills Backbone, which also hosts a training directory allowing employees to find out more about all the providers working in the industry that are accredited through NSARE.

The directory should be live and accessible to the public by the time you read this – or else it will be within weeks – and is another example of NSARE building upon existing IT developments, rather than reinventing the wheel. The system behind the directory was originally developed for the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink.

Clark said: “Anyone can use the directory to search for information on courses, assessments or providers, and users can narrow down searches geographically; finding out who are the providers in the East Midlands, for example, or in Scotland.”

She added: “As we develop the Skills Backbone, we want to be able to host on there training materials that would be downloadable by our providers, so again there’s a direct benefit there for them.”

Grades and benchmarks

When NSARE won the concession to run the Network Rail Training & Assessment Accreditation it promised a “radically different approach.”

Alexander, a former national training manager with Network Rail, told us: “We are changing it radically from an audit regime that made sure that individual companies met a minimum standard, to an inspection regime which is about instituting a quality improvement cycle.

“There are many key differences. We will grade individual providers on a scale; anybody who got through the old audits should get through this inspection at a minimum standard, but we will then grade them as inadequate, meaning urgent work is required, or satisfactory, good or outstanding.”

After June this year, the initial inspection reports into every training provider will be available online, allowing people to check how good they are before signing up.

Alexander said: “People will see the exact report written by the inspector: it’s very transparent, with nothing hidden.

“We’re not auditing a standard in a traditional sense; we’ve got a framework that describes what we expect the outcomes to be, for example leadership and management, and they’ve got to be able to demonstrate evidence against that.

“The inspection is a professional judgement by an expert in educational achievement, not an auditor; everything we’re doing has been derived from the Ofsted approach. The inspectors will make a professional judgement based on their knowledge and experience and their application of these standards across a range of industries, and a range of educational establishments.

“So when they say a training provider is good, they’re not being compared just to other railway providers, they’re being compared to the whole of the UK’s training establishments.”

But Alexander said: “Naturally, some people have had concerns about a radical change. That’s understandable. We did take on their views, but we haven’t made any significant changes, we didn’t need to. I’m not saying we got it 100% right first time, but we are pretty close.

“The process is working. We’ve now done the first 30 inspections. There’s been a fairly slow start on that, we didn’t want to go rushing at it. We’ve gone in slowly; we’ve stopped, we’ve re-evaluated, we’ve discussed it and looked for flaws. We’re starting now to ramp up into ‘full production’ as, by the end of June, we’ve got another 70 training companies to inspect, and 30 on-site assessments to carry out. Once they’re all done, that’s when the reports go online.” That is being done to ensure that no companies get a competitive advantage just because they were inspected first.

Alexander added: “Those reports will always be maintained, as we do new reports, it will always be the most current on the website.”

Sticks and carrots

Another important change is that better providers will now be trusted more and so inspected less often – another principle imported from the Ofsted model.

‘Inadequate’ organisations will face reinspection within two or three months, and if they fail to meet the minimum standard of ‘satisfactory’, their authority to deliver training/assessment will be removed. If they’re ‘satisfactory’, re-inspection will be 12-15 months, for those rated ‘good’ 18-24 months, while the outstanding providers will only face inspections ever 24-36 months.

Alexander said: “The better you are, the less frequent the inspections are. Previously, it happened every 12 months irrespective of how good or bad you were. We’ll go back based on the ability of the provider; a lot of it depends on leadership and management. If you’ve got good leadership at a training provider, and a good capacity to improve, you don’t need to be constantly evaluated. We then need to work with them outside that framework to give them additional skills for trainers.

“We’re talking with the University of Derby about a whole range of training skills, going from a basic introduction up to a degree in technical training. It’s not about mandating, but recognising an area of weakness and finding a way of dealing with it collectively.

“The feedback from people who have been inspected is very positive, and that feedback is now circulating around the industry. The changes are not much to worry about – it’s adding significant value, and it’s a step change. It’s all moving forward and improving provision. That’s what the industry tells us.”

NSARE has specifically selected inspectors without a background in rail to avoid them having “preconceived ideas” about who and what was good, bad or indifferent.

Alexander explained: “We wanted professional judgement based around comparisons with the whole educational sector. We’re not benchmarking companies against each other; we’re benchmarking them against UK plc.”

Raising the standard

It is all part of a broader mission to modernise and improve training provision on the UK’s railways, and ensure safety is paramount by making employees’ competences more verifiable and accessible for employers.

Asked for his view on the broad state of training in the rail sector, Alexander said: “In the longer term, we’ve [the UK] got to concentrate more on engineering training, and we’ve got to concentrate more on technical skills.

“The technology on the railway is changing. We’ve got to reinvigorate some of our training. Whilst it may be good, we’ve got to get to the point where we have outstanding training provision for the railway. Without outstanding training, we’re not going to get the highly skilled, motivated workforce we need to take the industry forward.

“Training is absolutely critical to the industry’s long-term success, and the safe, efficient delivery of our investment in the railway as a country.”

Looking ahead

That long-term vision is also at the heart of one of NSARE’s other major projects at the moment: skills forecasting.

The current six-month project, which began in March, updates and expands work done in 2009 and 2010 before NSARE was formally established as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. The initial work was done to inform NSARE’s business plan and to support the case to Government of the need for a National Skills Agency for the sector – to provide the evidence, determine what the skills gaps were, and who would be doing what and working with whom to solve those problems.

Clark said: “When they evaluate the need for a skills academy in any sector, part of the process is about evaluating need; looking at workforce demographics, skills issues and gaps, how many learners are going to need to be trained over a given number of years This all helps the Skills Funding Agency ensure that the money available for spending on training is targeted to the right sectors.”

In 2010, NSARE issued a questionnaire to rail industry companies seeking to find out more about the issues they were facing, and used the responses and detailed workforce data to develop a forecasting model pulling in the existing demographics of the workforce, and projecting from that where and when the gaps will occur.

That workforce data allowed NSARE to work out how many people are likely to retire from the industry over the next 10- 15 years, broken down across four areas: track, electrification, signalling & telecoms, and traction & rolling stock. It can also be broken down by level, meaning the level of occupation or training, from apprentice through to professional graduate, for example.

Clark said: “We can therefore estimate that we need x number of people to replace those who are going to retire.”

Clearly even among people arriving fresh into the rail industry, vastly different levels of training are required.

Clark said: “If you’re bringing in an apprentice, as compared to somebody who’s already a qualified technician from the aerospace industry or car industry, the amount of time required to train those individuals is different. Welding would be a good example – if you take a welder from the heavy industrial engineering sector, to give him or her rail-specific training takes a few weeks, then they’re fully-functional. When you take on an apprentice, it’s a couple of years. That has an impact on when you need to recruit people. The model is flexible enough to accommodate that.”

Back in 2010, not all companies were willing or able to provide detailed workforce data; for some it just was not easily available, while others were wary of giving over information to an as-yet-then unofficial body like NSARE.

Clark said: “We ended up doing the forecast with the best data we had available: a mix of real company data and extrapolated data from some existing database, the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers’ (IRSE) database and Sentinel.”

But the model at that time was not sophisticated enough to handle major projects: things like the major electrification programmes, or HS2. Clark said: “This was before the Comprehensive Spending Review, when no-one knew what was going to be happening. It was a status quo forecast.

“But looking forward, we’re now much clearer about the issues and challenges. NSARE is much more established, we’ve got much greater support from the key client companies, and support from the DfT for this work: that all helps to add clout to what we’re trying to do.”

‘The industry is waking up to this’

The ORR is now funding the updated six-month project, which will include generating a high-level 10-year programme based on Network Rail, TfL, Crossrail, TOC, FOC and DfT upcoming major projects data. Clark said: “The industry, for all sorts of reasons, is waking up and realising that we need to have an industry forecast; we need to understand more about this skills gap, how big it is, whether it’s real or anecdotal? Other industries have done this collectively and discovered they’ve actually got quite significant gaps when they add it all up.”

She gave the example of a company that takes on 10 to 15 graduates a year, and thinks there isn’t a problem because that is a small number – but in fact, if 50 companies do the same thing, then suddenly at least 500 graduates are required, who don’t necessarily exist.

She said: “It’s all about aggregating the data at the whole-industry level. That’s vital, and that’s what makes people realise there’s an issue.

“We’ve got agreements from the key client companies – Network Rail, TfL and Crossrail – and the DfT, to provide information about the major projects and plans, to map them out into an integrated programme of what’s coming. We can then produce algorithms to work out what it means in terms of people resource. Alongside that, we’ll be going back to individual companies to get their existing workforce information, so we can pull it altogether.”

This is another area where the new database of competences will come into its own.

She said: “Once we’ve got the database in place, and we’ve got everyone on it, we won’t have to keep revisiting the skills forecasting project, because the information will always be there – and at a much more detailed, granular level. So, we’ll actually be able to drill down, and rather than just say ‘signalling and telecoms’, we’ll be able to go into it in more detail and find out what the situation will look like, say, for signal testers specifically.

“If we can marry that with what’s coming, it will make keeping the forecast up-to-date much easier.”

NSARE is not and was never meant to be a training provider itself, but its role in tackling the skills shortage has got to be more than just waving a flag, Clark said: “I see our role as facilitating and making things happen. It’s more than just saying there’s a problem and something needs to be done about it – that’s not helpful and the industry wouldn’t thank us for that.

“We need to work collectively to solve the problem, and offer our thoughts and ideas, ask how we can help – and then offer that help.” 

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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