Patrick McLoughlinWhen the UK Government announced its plan to create an additional 30,000 rail and road apprenticeships by the end of the current parliament, UK Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: "Training our rail and road workforce is essential if we want to build a transport network fit for the future."

Speaking at the end of August, McLoughlin continued: "I want to see every part of Britain benefiting from a growing economy, and that is why our investment in transport won’t just help people get around, it will help them get on."

This focus on a transport network that is fit for the future has pushed the idea of apprenticeships up the UK agenda, and the government has now given the rail engineering advance technician apprenticeship standard, backed by the National Skills Academy Railway Engineering (NSARE), the green light.

Also on offer in the UK is Network Rail’s advanced apprenticeship scheme, which runs for three years – one at a college and two years at a depot, ‘getting hands dirty’.

Expanding rail apprenticeships

"You learn a great deal in this first year academically and preparing yourself for an engineering environment," says Luke Boggis, a former Network Rail apprentice who is now a senior technical track officer.

"This prepares you for the second year when you have your local placement."

Crossrail has also implemented a strategy for its contractors to employ apprentices. As of September, the project includes 485 apprentices.

"The reality is, generally speaking, people don’t take on apprentices for the sake of just having an apprentice," explains Andrew Eldred, head of employee relations at Crossrail.

Cranfield University has launched the world’s first full MSc in Safety and Accident Investigation.

"I’ve never got the impression on Crossrail that they are only doing it because it is a contractual requirement."

Rebecca Hughes, an apprentice site engineer for Skanska at Paddington Station, describes it as a great opportunity, and one that is not to be missed. "You get to see plenty of things that you will never get to see again. I’ve had great experiences," she says.

As part of HS2, the government also hopes to create 2,000 apprenticeships through the National College for High Speed Rail. Last year, Prime Minister David Cameron described this as a chance to create "a pool of locally trained workers with the right skills to draw upon for future projects".

Plugging the skills gap

It is this idea of a "pool" of workers that hits right at the heart of the problem: increasing rail investment while trying to plug the skills gap, or, as Eldred describes, "appalling skills shortages".

NSARE CEO Neil Robertson says: "Apprentices help close gaps. These arise when there are insufficient people to do the job in question. We have a problem with this as many of our skilled rail engineers are retiring."

This issue of an ageing workforce was highlighted at the High Speed Rail UK conference, when figures showed that 40% of those working in the industry are over the age of 45. NSARE research also shows that more than half of the 14,500 engineers working on maintenance, overhaul and new-build trains are over 50.

While more apprenticeships is not the only answer – re-training and engineering graduates certainly have a part to play – it is the ability to marry classroom learning and hands-on experience, as well as attracting a younger generation to replenish the old guard, that appeals to the industry.

"We need to double the number of apprentices in the rail sector," adds Robertson.

"We also have a big job to up-skill and re-skill those already in the sector [who are] facing new technologies. Rail is not alone – these problems are faced by other sectors, such as energy."

Luke Boggis agrees, saying his time as an apprentice at Network Rail was a transformative experience and one that needs to be aggressively promoted. "This is a career you can really push on in, and the sky is the limit with opportunities – if you want it to be," he explains. "It helps open other doors to an exciting career in an ever-changing engineering network."

For companies, Eldred says the presence of a new generation acts as a motivator, "and seems to boost the enthusiasm of the people working alongside them".

He adds: "Historically, the industry hasn’t been great at recruiting and training apprentices and people like to be able to pass on their skills and experience. They like to play that mentor role and see people coming into the industry and replenishing the industry."

Not all plain sailing

Challenges lie ahead, however. Robertson points to the cost to employers, as well as the time required to support apprentices.

"These challenges are greater the younger the apprentices are, and safety is obviously a primary concern," he adds.

The word from Eldred and Crossrail is unique, given that it is external contractors who employ the apprentices.

Another challenge, says Eldred, "has been to try to get the contractors to maximise the opportunities". He continues: "It’s one thing to write these things into the contract, but to try to get the contractors to move beyond near compliance, to get them to look at their supply chain and say ‘can we go beyond the minimum? If so, where are the areas of the supply chain where the opportunities are greatest?’

"If future projects want to ratchet up the numbers [of apprentices], then planning and maximising the opportunities has got to be a priority."

The classroom and the field

Another important factor to consider around apprenticeships is the education and qualifications involved.

At Network Rail, apprentices take a NVQ level three in Railway Engineering and ILM level three in First Line Management. Following this, they have degree opportunities – something that Boggis says Network Rail support 100%.

Crossrail, on the other hand, has the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy, which provides construction qualifications.

However, Hughes believes that her NVQ level three could have gone further.

"Possibly by virtue of the fact that I have some A levels and I’m reasonably able academically, I wouldn’t say that the NVQ challenged me.

"It doesn’t really bother me as the work that I am given day-to-day on site challenges me and I’ve learned a phenomenal amount, but I wouldn’t say the qualifications I’ve got necessarily reflect what I’ve learned."

Nonetheless, when combined with the practical, on-site experience, these qualifications do add to the employability of apprentices.

"Everyone has their weaknesses but this apprenticeship highlights early on the fields for improvement."

As Hughes nears the end of her time at Paddington, her thoughts are beginning to drift toward her future.

"I want to get my technician membership of the Institute of Civil Engineers in the next twelve to 18 months and I’m hoping to have a crack at a different project," she says.

Meanwhile, Boggis has just celebrated his first anniversary as a senior technical officer and is eager to continue his development.

"Everyone has their weaknesses but this apprenticeship highlights early on the fields for improvement and really does encourage you along the way," he says.

"I knew that if I could push myself hard enough I could get into a position where I could develop my learning even more and gain a degree, which I am now working towards, five years after the start of the scheme."

A lasting legacy

Such a statement will be music to the ears of the rail industry. Boggis represents what can be achieved, and the rewards of the money, time and effort spent on his development are now being reaped.

The industry has to inspire the next generation or risk decades of failed investment and the collapse of necessary projects. This involves reaching out – Crossrail has a school engagement programme, while the new National Training Academy for Rail is trying to solve the skills crisis one step at a time.

"The capacity of the industry needs building up," says Eldred, while Robertson hits the nail on the head. "Apprentices are the future of the industry."

While apprenticeships are just one part of the remedy, they are increasingly being viewed as a necessity and no longer just a worthwhile ambition. It is now up to the industry to seize the initiative and plug the gap.