Rail Industry Focus

18.09.17

Flexible skills for a changing industry

Source: RTM Aug/Sep 17

Beth Curtis, head of partnerships and communications at the National College for High Speed Rail (NCHSR), tells RTM’s Luana Salles that the new training centres will focus on developing a workforce capable of adapting to ever-changing industry demands.

The rail industry in the UK is changing, and changing fast. Focus is shifting rapidly from a mindset of building more infrastructure to ensuring existing infrastructure is technologically relevant. The DfT has already clearly stated its commitment to boost capacity via modern digital railway systems rather than by simply laying down more track – and in order to maximise the impact of projects where tracklaying is required, such as HS2 and Crossrail. 

Because of this, the infamous skills shortage that is so prevalent in the industry – and which, if left ignored, will be the chink in the armour of any large-scale modernisation plan – must be plugged with a strategy that focuses just as much on fluidity and change as it does on making up for lost time. 

While the industry does not lack in comprehensive skills strategies, it is still trying to develop the modern and forward-thinking institutions necessary to deliver this step change in training. That is where the new NCHSR, with its campuses in Doncaster and Birmingham, comes in. 

Expanding on this, Beth Curtis, head of partnerships and communications at the college, told us: “One of the things we’re committed to is ensuring our learners are taught how to move with the times so that they keep up to date, because things are changing all the time. 

“One of the key characteristics of the workforce of the future is that they can adapt to change and pick up new things. There are things that we’ll start teaching in September that we probably won’t be teaching in five years’ time, because everything in the industry will have moved on.” 

NCHSR Birmingham-F-01-01

A virtual classroom 

The NCHSR was created mostly to focus on HS2, but boasts a curriculum packed with enough transferable skills to serve future generations of engineers. One of the distinct features of this curriculum is its relentless focus on innovation, technology and the digital railway, backed up by technical advisory boards tasked with ensuring courses are always one step ahead of what is happening in the industry. 

For example, nobody knows what an HS2 train will look like yet; the infrastructure project has only just started to award its major contracts. But because of the National College’s specialist kits, donated by partners in the sector, it will be able to stay constantly up to date and guarantee its students are learning with “absolutely best-in-class” equipment. 

The most recent example of this was the arrival of a refurbished Eurostar ‘power car’, donated by Alstom to both colleges. The 25-tonne power cars – previously used to carry more than 160 million passengers from London to Paris and Brussels at high speeds – are beautifully wrapped in pink and green liveries and the NCHSR logo on the outside, but empty on the inside. As part of their new lease of life after retiring from service, they will be transformed into an augmented reality classroom, incorporating the use of virtual reality (VR) headsets. 

Students at the college will be able to experience an interactive 3D recreation of the existing Eurostar cab configuration and virtually drive the train from September – but once the HS2 train is designed, VR equipment will be updated accordingly. As well as saving time and money by dropping the need to get a new train altogether, it will also make learning as exciting as possible. 

“For those who are currently looking at clearing options or haven’t yet decided their next steps, the new power car is symbolic of the smart alternative that the college offers to university; an opportunity to forge an exciting career in creating Britain’s 21st century rail network,” said Clair Mowbray, chief executive of NCHSR, shortly after A-level results were unveiled in August. 

“The best way to educate Britain’s future engineers and provide the world-class skills needed to reduce the national skills shortage is to grant learners access to the kind of apparatus they will become familiar with when they go out to work for businesses in the field.” 

NCHSR Doncaster-F-10-01

Skilled teachers and employable students 

To keep on-brand with the college’s focus on modernisation, its teaching staff will include members of the rail workforce who will donate their time to come down to the campuses and deliver courses to students. “It’s another way that we make sure the students are completely up to date as to what’s happening, because they’ll be taught by people who are actually working in the industry,” explained Curtis. 

Alongside one-day or one-week classes designed to upskill existing staff, the main college courses are offered as part of two distinct options: apprenticeships (Level 4 high-speed rail and infrastructure higher technician apprenticeships, and Level 5 operations and departmental manager apprenticeships) and a Higher Education option, which runs for a year as a full-time course providing a Level 4 qualification. 

Although apprentices will be fiercely focused on employability – students will spend roughly 20% of their time in college and 80% on the job – both are excellent routes into the industry. The Higher Education qualification includes a “very significant commitment” to work experience, with students going on several placements during their course in order to get hands-on learning and interact with potential employers. 

“It’s also an opportunity for employers to talent-spot, to look for their future employees within the people they’re getting on work experience,” added Curtis. “There’s a significant commitment to work experience in all of our courses. Business engagement is a theme that runs through absolutely everything we do. We have an industry advisory panel, an HS2 technical advisory panel, and businesses have been involved from the very start, and continue to be, with the college. 

“We’d stop short of saying it’s a guaranteed job, but the skills shortage in the industry is so marked that I would be pretty confident that all of our students will walk straight into a job when they finish studying with us, because that’s what businesses tell us they need. They’re absolutely crying out for new people.” 

As if that wasn’t attractive enough, NCHSR is also working with industry partners and education bodies to promote this opportunity to prospective students. Back in June, for example, it hosted an activity day as part of International Women in Engineering Day where female professionals from the sector came to work on a rail-related project alongside girls from schools in Birmingham and Sheffield “to try to enthuse and excite them about what the industry can offer”. The National College is also working closely with groups like STEMNET, the Institute of Chartered Engineers and Tomorrow’s Engineers to raise its profile, and is offering input into HS2 Ltd’s primary education programme. 

If you’re already working in the industry and looking to upskill, if you’re an employer seeking specialised apprentices, if you’ve just concluded your A-levels or if your son or daughter has a passion for engineering, now is your chance to grab one of the few spaces left and hop on board the virtual high-speed train headed directly to the future of the industry.

For more information

W: nchsr.ac.uk

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