The rail industry and Apprenticeships - a great fit

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2013

David Way, executive director of the National Apprenticeship Service, discusses the rising profile of apprenticeships in the rail industry and their growing attraction for young people. 

Apprenticeships are becoming the new norm for ambitious young people, with ICM research showing over half of 14 to 24-year-olds would do an Apprenticeship if one was available. As A-Level and GCSE results come out, more and more school and college leavers are opting for Apprenticeships, and many are aiming for a career in the rail industry. 

The National Apprenticeship Service website advertises up to 20,000 Apprenticeship vacancies at any one time, and our most recent data show that in the third quarter of the academic year 2012-13, the engineering sector posted nearly 5,500 vacancies, attracting almost 60,000 applications. Compared to the same period last year, this represents an increase in vacancies of around 23% and applications by 11%. An average of 11 applications for every vacancy proves that employers are getting a good range of candidates to select from. 

In the rail industry specifically, over 1,600 apprentices began their training in 2012-13, enrolled on a variety of frameworks, with Rail Engineering (Track) the most popular. 

I am not surprised at the increasing popularity of Apprenticeships, as they offer a host of advantages for young people and the businesses that employ them. Apprentices earn while they learn in a real job, securing a real future, while a staggering 96% of companies report business benefits such as greater productivity and staff retention as a result of hiring them.

In the rail industry, issues such as an ageing workforce and a need for staff with specialist technical skills can be easily tackled via Apprenticeships. Companies gain bright, keen young people who learn exactly the right practical skills on the job while becoming fully qualified. I was impressed by the rail engineering apprentices that I met in Nottingham who said they previously hadn’t enjoyed maths but had enthusiastically mastered numeracy skills to ensure the safety of their work. 

As a result of this great fit between the needs of the rail industry and what Apprenticeships can offer, many organisations in this sector rightly see Apprenticeships as key to growth. The National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) has identified Apprenticeships as a key part of its strategy to provide skills training for the rail sector, and has been commissioned by Network Rail to introduce a quality standard for training in the sector. The National Apprenticeship Service has also been working with organisations to further improve Apprenticeships in the industry. 

Apprenticeships offered by Network Rail are hugely important to this strategy, with the company committing to recruiting 200 apprentices each year. I visited Network Rail earlier this year and was impressed at their award-winning Advanced Apprenticeship programme, also known as On Track. Residential for the first year, each three-year Engineering Apprenticeship is offered in one of five specific areas: track, signalling, electrification and plant, railway telecommunications, or overhead line. After successful graduation, apprentices can progress onto an HNC or Foundation Degree in Railway Engineering. 

During my visit to Network Rail I was impressed by the Apprenticeship’s simulation of real working conditions, including night time conditions, and the way in which apprentices were taught problem solving and to test out existing practices in their job roles. 

Network Rail’s Advanced Apprenticeship has been recognised nationally, and is highly regarded within both the railway and wider engineering industries. It has been approved by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and leads to registration as an Engineering Technician upon completion. It is also proving extremely popular with young people – the Apprenticeship has its own Facebook page, which has attracted over 20,000 likes. 

Network Rail is not the only company supporting Apprenticeships; Transport for London (TfL) is also committed to hiring apprentices, and is experiencing increasing demand. In 2012, the company launched a new Track Renewal Engineering Apprenticeship for London Underground, and the first year apprentices are already achieving great feedback among the company’s management. Also in the capital, Crossrail are committing to hiring 400 apprentices over the lifetime of the project. 

I am delighted to see that such reputable companies in the rail industry are among those securing their future by offering high quality Apprenticeships. 

While Apprenticeships are increasingly incorporating a wide variety of sectors and job roles, it is vital that the more traditional trades and industries remain committed to Apprenticeships to provide the essential practical skills and training required. In the rail industry this is especially true, given that passenger numbers keep increasing and infrastructure will always need to be maintained and upgraded.

Apprenticeships are now being seen as the first choice by many young people, giving them a great head start to their working life.

 The rail industry must capitalise on this to reap the benefits that Apprenticeships have to offer. 


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