Why now is the time to take action on railway skills


We’re only a few weeks into 2019 and it feels like ‘uncertainty’ could be a strong contender for Oxford Dictionaries’ official word of the year. Even without mentioning the ‘B’ word, we’re seeing more splits and disagreements across our main political parties, mixed messages about commitments to major infrastructure projects, and an overall business confidence that is lukewarm at best.

At times like this, it’s important to take stock of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. For the railway sector, we know there are robust plans in place for high speed rail and for upgrading the existing national network. We also have a widely reported national skills shortage which threatens to hinder the sector’s growth and productivity. We know there is an ageing workforce and we know that diversity and inclusion within the workforce needs to be improved. But it’s about time that businesses within the sector stopped just talking about these issues and started doing something about them.

Attracting the best talent to deliver major national infrastructure means not only getting behind projects like HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Crossrail 2, but also making a firm commitment to apprenticeships and upskilling the existing workforce. There are many companies who are leading the way in embracing apprenticeships. Recent figures have revealed that four in five levy-paying businesses have not yet taken on a single apprentice. This simply isn’t good enough for the industry to realise its ambitions.  Without pointing fingers, we need to come together and quickly find solutions.

The National College for High Speed Rail was established to do exactly that. As we’ve started to roll-out our apprenticeship programme, we’ve already had some fantastic support from an abundance of businesses. Because of this, we’re on track to reach our target of 396 learners at the college by the end of this academic year.

Yet when it comes to conversations we’re having with those employers who are unable to commit to apprenticeships and training, we’re often hearing similar reasons. Some say they are unable to release employees for the 20% of time required for off the job training.  Others say that the location can be challenging, with it being preferable to deliver training much closer to their workplace.  These are workable problems – we can find constructive solutions such as taking a blended approach to delivery to suit the needs of an employer.  We can also move training delivery closer to individuals where necessary.

Understandably, because we’re a new college, many employers haven’t been sure about what we have to offer; our open-door policy continues and we invite those who haven’t yet visited to come and observe the college in action. We’ve welcomed many businesses who have seen the high quality of our training offer and especially of our talented teaching staff who have strong collective experience in the industry.

As we’re striving to improve skills, we’re also striving to improve diversity and inclusion. This is important not only in terms of diversifying the workforce but also to ensure a diverse employer network. Too many businesses are currently working in isolation and we are encouraging industry and apprenticeship providers to work in collaboration with the college and find new ways to create apprenticeships and opportunities, such as through shared roles.

By bringing business together, we can find different models for training and workforce development. While there may be wider political uncertainty, we can be sure that the skills shortage isn’t going to go away if we don’t act.  Our college can be flexible to industry needs and we are encouraging you to come and talk to us. If there is a problem, we will find a solution.

 Clair Mowbray, chief executive of the National College for High Speed Rail