Rail Industry Focus


On the cusp of change

Source: RTM Apr/May 16

Speaking at Infrarail, rail training leaders outline the industry’s reliance on the supply chain to ensure it hits training targets, as well as the need to open up courses, transfer skills and offset levy costs. Luana Salles reports.

As far as workforce training is concerned, this year’s Infrarail was perfectly timed: it took place just a few months after the launch of the government’s Transport Infrastructure Skills Strategy and the Rail Supply Group’s (RSG’s) Fast Track to the Future report, which touched on the need to attract 20,000 more apprentices by raising the industry’s profile. 

Both these strategies helped inform the first platform debate of the three-day Infrarail event, centred entirely around skills and training. Asked what the biggest potential ‘blockers’ are to the success of these strategies, Guy Wilmshurst-Smith, Network Rail’s head of professional development and training, said the strategies themselves would already ‘un-block’ the knots in the rail sector’s fragmented talent pool. 

“[They] provide a clear view, that clear ambition that we need,” he said. “It will help us produce training that is broader in its ambition, so it’s not just about new entrants; it’s upskilling our existing workforce. It’s more balanced, enabling us to focus on clear ambitions for diversity. And it has really blended in the work with the trailblazers’ standards, laying down a clearer plan for a robust and professional level of training, blended with properly assessed workplace assessment. 

“That combination, that clear set of ambitions, means people can’t dodge the issue any further. We’ve been told what we need to do, and now it’s up to us to get on with it and deliver it.” 

We will fail without the supply chain 

But Neil Robertson, chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR), didn’t agree the strategies would be, in themselves, a panacea to the industry’s major skills gap. In fact, he argued, the new training and apprenticeship targets will still fall through if the supply chain doesn’t up its game. 

He told those present at the panel debate, facilitated by RTM: “I think it’s quite simple. We need to get the supply chain to train more apprenticeships. We are probably training around a third of the new apprentices we need. Every part of the industry needs to train more.” 

Robertson argued that the “more dynamic” supply chain will need the most encouragement and support to train apprentices, especially the SMEs within it. “As an industry, we will fail if we don’t encourage, incentivise and support smaller businesses and the whole supply chain to train,” he added. 

The NSAR CEO said he was encouraged by the RSG strategy, which came just a few days after the government’s own. In his view, it reflected the industry coming together to say they want to make this training ambition happen. “I think with those strategies together, we’re in a really good place as an industry, but we have to do some really practical things now that say ‘how do you have at least 2.5% of your workforce in training?’ 

“And even – well, especially – companies like Angel Trains, and even companies like Adeline Ginn’s [founder of Women in Rail], are now thinking about how to take apprentices when they didn’t before,” said Robertson. “Whereas most of you guys [rail leads in the audience] will be familiar with apprenticeships, and it’s just a case of doing a bit more and understanding how that plays into your contractual arrangements.”

Infrarail - 2016 - The Platform - Day 1

Offsetting the levy 

In an interview with RTM last year, Robertson made no bones about criticising the government’s planned apprenticeship levy, which will come into force in April 2017 for all employers with an annual wage bill over £3m. The CEO said the levy – or the ‘old-fashioned, clumsy tax’, as he called it – would in fact be counterproductive to the apprenticeship target. 

Asked if his view had now changed, the NSAR boss said: “I still think it’s a tax, and I still think it’s going to be bureaucratic. But I’m a pragmatist – it’s here now, it’s not going to go away. We failed to get them [government] to overturn that. Our job now is to make the best of it.” 

Individual companies are already doing this, he said, but NSAR has also launched support services to help rail firms, particularly in the supply chain, to understand how to use the levy better. 

“It’s going to be taken from you as a tax, so you may as well get as much of it back as possible. Why not? I’m unashamed to say that 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 we do that, we’ll have brought in lots of talent in the process and we’ll have offset our losses,” said Robertson. 

He pointed out that the rail industry isn’t very ‘streetwise’ about getting government funding into their training programmes, but expected this would now change: “I’m optimistic now about how much money we can draw down as a sector. Let’s offset the bill from the Treasury as much as we can.” 

Agreeing with him, Wilmshurst-Smith pointed out that the ability to deliver the ambitions of the strategies is “hugely linked” to the amount of money the industry can draw down on the levy. 

“The rules are very restricted, our ability to deliver a large number of apprenticeships will be really restrained, and we need the rules to allow us to reflect the needs of the industry and the real skills we need; it’s not about ticking numbers, it’s about meeting the genuine needs of skills for the industry,” he said. 

“We need to be able to use the levy to reflect all of those training costs: not just the cost of their course, but the cost of developing trainers, facilities and materials. There’s a huge range of activities we need to do in order to develop the quality of training we aspire to have. We want people converting between careers, upskilling themselves all the way through their lives. The ability to draw down on the levy needs to help us do that.” 

Transferrable skills 

Wilmshurst-Smith added that big employers must also strive to work collaboratively to ensure rail skills are more transferable across the entire industry. The skills needed to get track access to London Underground (LU), for example, are nearly identical to the skills needed to access the main rail network, he said – “so why train twice for essentially the same set of skills?” 

“We’re starting on our journey,” he continued. “At the moment, LU and ourselves have an agreement on industry-common induction that is now rolling out across the industry. That alone saves about £6m worth of effort. It’s a really positive step, but a very small step in what needs to be a much bigger effort for us having an industry where the skills landscape is simpler and easier for the supply chain to move their people between the key infrastructure managers.” 

Oomph - Infrarail - 2016 - The Platform - Day 1 -14

Part of this means investing in managers and leaders themselves as well as on apprentices, ensuring they are qualified enough to carry out the “tougher job” of managing a cross-sector industry. “Even if Nicola Shaw hadn’t recommended it [in the Shaw report], we’d be pushing the industry to develop and approach on leadership and management,” claimed Robertson. “We’re going to present that approach to the RSG Council at the end of June.” 

Sharing training courses 

To ensure that this leadership and collaboration ethos filters down into the supply chain, Wilmshurst-Smith, the Network Rail talent lead, said large companies need to open up their training courses, including to suppliers. 

He added: “It costs hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds to develop these extensive roadmaps. We have opened up some of our training, but actually, what the strategy has really shown us, and what Shaw [Report] has shown us, is that it’s not just about producing world-class training events – it’s actually about having the whole industry contributing towards the design of those events, so they help the industry work across its boundaries.” 

Quality, not quantity 

Adding to that point, Robertson said the industry must start focusing on the quality of training rather than the number of training academies left to build. To facilitate that, he said Wilmshurst-Smith and himself were about to “launch and plan” for a new Network Rail-assured training network where all companies can access training of guaranteed high quality. 

“We’ve actually got most of the training bricks and mortar we need,” said Robertson. “It’s now about improving the quality, moving up the level to deal with the digital, and bringing in more Level 3 apprenticeships rather than Level 2. 

“And the biggest problem – and we don’t have the answer to this – is how do we get more high-quality trainers? Because you can make more money on the job, as it were, than being a trainer. So that’s where the biggest challenge is.”

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