HS2

12.04.16

Rail sector’s job ‘is to get as much money back from apprenticeship levy as possible’

It is now the rail industry’s job to get as much money back from the imminent apprenticeship levy as possible to ensure it can bring in lots of fresh talent, the chief executive of the national Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) said.

Speaking at today’s Platform session during the first day of Infrarail, Neil Robertson reiterated arguments made in an interview with RTM last year that the new apprenticeship levy will be a “bureaucratic tax”.

But he added: “I suppose it’s still a tax, and I still think it’s going to be bureaucratic, but I’m a pragmatist. It’s here now, and it’s not going to go away – we failed to overturn that. Our job now is to make the best of it.”

According to Robertson, NSAR has developed support services that will help companies, “especially supply chain companies”, to do this by better understanding how to use the levy to their advantage.

“It’s going to be taken from you as a tax, so you may as well get as much of it back as is possible. Why not? It’s now our job as an industry to get as much of our levied tax back as we can, because ultimately you spend that tax on new apprentices, so if you do that, we’ll have brought in lots of talent in the process and will have offset our losses,” he said.

On a more “controversial” note, as he put it, the NSAR boss also said that the rail industry is not very streetwise about getting government funding into its training programmes.

“That’s not really a criticism; that’s just saying we’re too busy getting on and doing it rather than spending all the time chasing money,” Robertson added.

“So it’s actually a compliment. However, we need to be a bit more streetwise, and I think we’re going to be. I’m optimistic now about how much money we can drawdown as a sector. Let’s offset the bill from the Treasury as much as we can.”

Asked by the debate’s facilitator, RTM’s business director Roy C Rowlands, if NSAR has created a group to guide this process, Robertson said: “We already have a steering group and we have been designing our response to this, advising the industry and advising on new standards. [Guy Wilmshurst-Smith’s] colleague Michelle chairs that particular group.

“But we’ve also developed a response to the industry, a service – so they sit down with you, your HR people, your training people, and some complicated spreadsheets, and help you see all the different places where you can get money back.”

NSAR is also working closely with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, who was present at the event, on how to implement this. According to Robertson, the department will publish guidance on this “quite soon”, although this is already two weeks late, he said.

Wilmshurst-Smith, Network Rail’s head of professional development and training, who was also present at the Platform debate, highlighted that the ability to deliver the ambitions of the [skills] strategy is “hugely linked to the amount of money we can drawdown on the levy”.

“The rules are very restrictive, our ability to deliver a large number of apprenticeships will be really restrained, and we need the rules to allow us to reflect he needs of the industry and the skills we need,” he said.

“It’s not about ticking numbers, it’s about meeting the genuine needs of skills for the industry. And so we need to be able to use the levy to reflect all those training costs, not just the cost of the courses but the cost of developing trainers, developing facilities, developing materials.

“There’s a huge range of activities we need to do in order to develop the quality of training that we aspire to have. We need the levy to be able to drawdown for people of all ages, not just be focused on the very young. We want people to be converting between careers, upskilling themselves all the way through their lives. The ability to drawdown on the levy needs to help us do that.”

Read more about skills and training and access full coverage of this year’s Infrarail in the upcoming April/May edition of RTM.

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