The skills bottleneck: Dealing with growing apprenticeship demand

Source: RTM Apr/May 2019

Richard Turner, head of apprenticeships at Network Rail, details the reasons for growing apprenticeship demand in the rail sector over the coming years.

The Network Rail Engineering Technician apprenticeship program develops the technicians, team leaders, supervisors, managers, and engineers of the future. Apprentices benefit from three years of development at two purpose-built training sites in Coventry and Portsmouth, as well as challenging and rewarding work at their depots. Apprentices specialise in either telecoms, electrical engineering, overhead line equipment, signals, or track maintenance, and benefit from additional coaching in leadership and basic project management. Taking on two groups of students a year, Network Rail currently ranks amongst the top 100 employers according to, offering exciting career prospects even after apprentices are qualified.

But why so much emphasis on apprentices? Over the next 15 years, our railway will undergo its biggest facelift in recent memory. And with an estimated £42bn looking to be spent over the next few years, change really is on the way. Whether it’s HS2, digital railway, or electrification – things are getting bigger, faster, and more reliable. But with all this work comes a lot of labour, and these major improvements require everything from project managers to plan the work, engineers and technicians to build and maintain the infrastructure, and new operators as new services come online. While industrial action and ticket prices might grab the headlines, an often-forgotten threat to running a smooth and reliable railway is the impending talent bottleneck that put these infrastructure improvements at risk.  

To put this into a wider context, the UK currently has a shortage of trained engineers, and while today we rely on comparatively “traditional” engineering trades, the railway will eventually require greater numbers of system engineers who are currently the most “in demand.” Brexit isn’t helping either, causing second-guessing over migration and trade policies, which in turn restricts talent mobility. It’s safe to assume that our engineering talent, for now at least, will need to be homegrown – and that’s where apprenticeships come in.

Utilising apprenticeship levies and increasing apprenticeship intake represents one solution to generating new interest in railway engineering – especially given the current suite of exceptional further and higher education establishments providing not just excellent rail expertise, but facilities also. Simply put, the time has never been better to position rail apprenticeships as a viable and rewarding alternative to university. This helps explain the 22% increase in apprenticeships reported by the Transport Infrastructure Skills Strategy ‘Two Years On’ paper. The original strategy cited a shortfall of some 30,000 workers in relation to construction projects as well as 10,000 more in relation to operations – a gap that’s been closed by utilising the apprenticeship levy.

It’s not just a question of short-term skills, however. It is estimated that the average age of technical specialists on the railway is over 45 and we are set to lose half of these skills over the next 20 years – at the exact same time we expect to see new infrastructure and digitisation projects come to fruition, and at the exact same time services and customer numbers are set to increase.

While operating costs are numerous and not limited to the workforce, the risk of wage inflation is compelling: if customer numbers increase and skilled workers decrease, those workers will be in high demand. What’s more, as the railway undergoes its digital transformation, the skillset required to operate the railway will inevitably change. With that comes training costs and a risk to operational continuity. Introducing a youthful early careers pipeline into these trades will prevent a skills bottleneck, prepare the workforce with new skills for the future, prevent wage inflation, and ensure that we have enough engineers to complete critical infrastructure improvements so that rail customers can benefit.


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