The Last Word

23.03.17

Reasons to be cheerful

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 17

Ahead of the major imminent reforms to the apprenticeship system, Simon Rennie, general manager of the National Training Academy for Rail, outlines the industry’s reasons to be positive about the future of skills.

Those of a particular age will recall with a warm glow the prestige of the British Rail Apprenticeship scheme and how this formed a bedrock of a life-long career. Then it all came crashing down with the (albeit disputed) ‘Great Car Economy’ positioned as informal government policy during the early 1990s. 

While not entirely the career of last resort for Generation X, rail has not always been the beacon of first choice for bright young talent in the privatised era – leading to well-worn outcomes of an under-skilled and ageing workforce given the emergence, in particular, of digital technologies. Cue: competition for talent, wage inflation, poor diversity and ultimately an unsustainable skills landscape. 

The strategic landscape 

Twenty years on from the completion of privatisation, are there now reasons to be cheerful? Vocational training has risen up the government agenda with a considerable number of juicy headlines: three million apprentices to be created during the term of this Parliament, an apprenticeship recruitment target of 2.3% of the workforce headcount per year for public sector organisations and, closer to home, the Transport Infrastructure Skills Strategy setting a target of 30,000 new apprenticeships to be created in transport (20,000 of these in rail) by 2020. 

A lavish set of targets? A set of strategies that are noble in intent but likely to fall into the notional 90% that fail when it comes to execution?   

And yet, there is a clear picture of government and industry creating both the pre-conditions and specific initiatives that give the overall strategy credibility – singing from the same hymn sheet in two-part harmony. Given that Departmental and Treasury Strategy is aligned (through the National Infrastructure Plan for Skills) and has the backing of industry (through the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce and the Rail Supply Group Sector Strategy), it’s evident that a wide variety of organisations are serious about pulling together. Add into the mix an increasing focus on skills within rail franchising tenders, there is a sense that the coffee is well and truly being smelt. 

So what will help make these strategies reality? Funding and standards.  

From April this year, businesses will pay 0.5% of their pay bill into a levy fund. A £15,000 allowance means that the levy effectively applies to businesses with annual pay bills greater than £3m. Like it or loathe it, it creates funds to spend and an incentive to adopt approved and registered schemes in areas where this did not previously apply. Subject to some clarification on detail, some levy funding can also be directed to both SME partners from next year as well as existing staff, so the ‘release costs’ of levy funding won’t always be reliant on increasing headcount. 

Rail engineering schemes between Levels 2 and 4, delivering the latest standards defined by employers, have been registered or are in development, and through the excellent work of the Trailblazer Group qualify for the highest funding available. There are significant bodies of work that evidence that apprenticeships of such good quality create a virtuous cycle of building skills and loyalty. Apprenticeships are simply great investments. 

Equally, degree apprenticeships will help to bridge the gap in perceived prestige with more conventional higher education choices while also providing young people with funded tuition and clear routes to employment. Compare and contrast with funding £27,000 of degree tuition fees yourself – no bad way to address bias that can be found in schools and the home that can often dissuade young people from a vocational career path. 

Actions and Specialist delivery 

The National Skills Academy for Rail’s (NSAR’s) Sector Skills Delivery Plan describes some key initiatives to attract, retain and train apprenticeship talent to a high standard. These include the promotion of a rich mix of available career pathways, co-ordinating training provision across colleges, universities and a broad range of new specialist providers so that training capability is substantially enhanced. 

But perhaps chief among the initiatives is the delivery of NSAR Connect, an apprenticeship brokerage platform designed to retain within the industry high-calibre applicants from over-subscribed schemes, something that gets the industry treating apprenticeship recruitment on a ‘pre-competitive’ basis for common good. 

Reasons to be cheerful?  We think so.

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

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