The demand for skilled workers in the railway industry is expected to increase dramatically due to multiple rail infrastructure projects underway around the UK.
Additionally, City and Guilds estimates that 28% of current rail employees are over the age of 50, meaning their skills will be lost to the industry when they retire. These factors mean a predicted additional 120,000 people will be required to work in the sector over the next five to ten years to accomplish these upcoming schemes.
Coleg y Cymoedd, one of the largest further education colleges in South Wales, has partnered with Protech Rail Engineering to create the Protech Training Academy. The course aims to equip the country’s up and coming workforce with the industry skills and knowledge needed.
The course will also see industry partner Ganymede become the first employer to engage with the course, providing apprenticeships to those who are taking part.
Assistant principal of business services at Coleg y Cymoedd Matthew Tucker and Protech Rail HR and business manager Stefanie McKeown told Rail Technology what candidates can expect from the new course and the most prominent areas that are facing skill shortage in the industry.
Frankie Youd (FY): What can candidates expect to experience on the course?
Matthew Tucker (MT): The programme is designed for those individuals who have already gained employment. Part of the academy process is we would support individual learners to match with employers so that we find that apprenticeship opportunity for them in partnership.
On the programme, they’ll find themselves on a three-day week programme for eight weeks, where they attend college to learn about the technical elements of rail work through classroom-based learning, and at our track facility.
We actively recruit 24 apprentices every month, up until the end of July. We equip the learners with all the necessary skills they need to move safely on site, including health and safety-related qualifications and technical knowledge. They have PTS track induction, so after the element of college learning, they will be fully qualified and have the knowledge to be able to work safely on site.
It’s a hands-on kind of learning environment, learning practically; it’s picking the tools up and working with the tools on a day to day on site, or on a track.
The second element of the programme is the NVQ part which the learners must complete. They do a real working day on track that’s assessed by an NVQ assessor who comes out in the workplace to assess them and their competencies based on their work.
FY: When it comes to the UK rail industry where are the most prominent gaps in recruitment?
MT: We did a skills analysis – it’s a couple of years old now – to identify that due to the levels of work that was coming through the pipeline there was a need to attract new entrants into the industry.
It looked at where groundwork and the supply of labour could potentially be throughout Wales.
There’s an ageing workforce across all elements of rail but particularly looking at the volumes of work attached to track maintenance. With transport for Wales and the new Valley line developments, there’s a definite need for an increased workforce.
I’ve been an advocate of trying to promote let’s grow our own and let’s bring in apprentices and let’s encouraged employees to recruit via that method. Thanks to the government’s financial support and employee incentive schemes it’s been very attractive for the rail sector to recruit apprentices.
FY: How does the introduction of Protech Training Academy aim to fill this skill gap?
MT: The college is a key partner of the Protech Rail Academy because we have young people making those decisions already so they decide to go on a level one rail programme, civil engineering programmes, and the progression from the full-time course is into an apprenticeship, into a real job, and that’s kind of where we can join up quite nicely with Protech Rail.
We’ve got learners who are making active decisions to follow this industry that we’re able to provide that journey for them from full-time courses to apprenticeship courses on full-time employment.
Stefanie McKeown (SM): At Protech Training Academy we focus on providing great quality training with the right level of support to help apprentices achieve their full potential. Our programme has been developed to ensure learners leave Protech Training Academy industry-ready with all the skills and knowledge they need to start their careers in the sector.
FY: How did the partnership with Coleg y Cymoedd and Protech rail engineering come about?
MT: Protech Rail are an engineering organisation based in Nantgarw, the college has a rail facility, and a head office also at Nantgarw. So, the link just comes from us working with employers, and that’s working with Protech Rail in other capacities.
SM: We wanted to play a role in training and supporting future talent and were keen to give back to the community and pass on our experience to young people in the area. Creating the Protech Training Academy and working in partnership with Coleg y Cymoedd is enabling us to fulfil these ambitions.
FY: How can a younger generation be encouraged to work within the industry?
MT: A point which I’m very passionate about really is how we promote our sectors to young people making decisions now. That’s not just school leavers; you’ve got to do it much earlier, you’ve got to do it at primary school, secondary school level.
I don’t think that the industry is promoted enough; we don’t promote the digital rail or promote engineering and those wider occupational areas which people don’t get to see. For us, it’s engaging with schools, and career services, to really promote the life that rail can provide to people.
Something I am keen about as well is to promote female engineers. I think we have maybe two female engineers in our current cohort, which is great to see us recruiting females in the rail industry because we try to encourage that female representation as well.
SM: Research prior to Protech Training Academy showed that there is a gender imbalance within the industry. In one of the reports we reviewed, research showed that amongst a total workforce of 85,723 covered by their survey, only 16.4% were female.
The industry is transforming and modernising and there are several annual events focused on getting more women into the industry as well as recognising those that are already here, but we all need to keep pushing and promoting this.
FY: What advice would you give to a young person who is considering working in this sector?
MT: Our kind of sound advice and guidance is that this is a tough sector to work in. However, it has great rewards, it’s an industry that young people need to consider and look at for long term employment.
It does have evening or weekend working, and you’ve got to be honest to individuals. You’ve got to prepare them for the actual work environment; it’s almost a life choice, but a really rewarding life choice if you make that decision, and you’re prepared to work hard.
We have young people who are great ambassadors, who have been 17 years of age, come into college and progressed into real jobs. It’s definitely a career choice that I would make, especially in Wales at the moment with transport for Wales, there’s a long sustainability of job opportunities.