Just a few months ago, Arriva Trains Wales appointed the UK’s first community rail apprentice.
Danielle Hopkins, 23, said she had read about the position online and was drawn to the opportunity. The chance to become the link between an industry she felt passionately about and her local community was too good to pass up.
Danielle’s was one of several apprenticeship success stories told last month as National Apprenticeship Week aligned with International Women’s Day, giving businesses the perfect chance to talk about the talented young women joining their ranks.
Last month, the new HS2 minister, Nusrat Ghani, met female apprentices at the National College for High Speed Rail in Birmingham.
A total of 76 apprentices have been employed through HS2 and its supply chain so far. High Speed Two (HS2) Ltd has employed its first 25 apprentices, of which 40 per cent are female, within the last six months, mostly in project management, project planning and commercial roles. “We’re very keen to ensure we have as broad a range of people as possible,” said Kate Myers, head of skills and employment at HS2.
In 2016, the Government’s transport infrastructure skills strategy included a goal to recruit 30,000 new apprentices in the transport sector by 2020 – of which around 20,000 would be created in rail.
National Apprenticeship Week provided plenty of evidence that the industry is endeavouring to meet this target.
MTR Crossrail recently welcomed its 200th driver apprentice. The company was the first train operator to be listed on the register of apprenticeship training providers (RoATP) and its first group of apprentices have now completed the 18-month course, allowing them to drive unsupervised.
Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT), which operates the Glasgow Subway, also announced the reintroduction of an apprenticeship scheme within its engineering maintenance team. The SPT last ran an apprenticeship scheme in 1995. More than 20 years on, a group of four new apprentices has joined the team at its Broomloan depot.
Levy or tax?
The apprenticeship levy was introduced in April 2017 to help facilitate the creation of more apprenticeship opportunities, but it has received a mixed reaction.
Since it came into force, the number of new apprentices across the country has actually fallen by more than half. The Department for Education (DfE) said the lower figures were expected. With 24 months to spend their new levy fund, many companies could still be determining how they can maximise their investment.
However, business groups believe that, in many cases, companies are paying the levy like a tax and failing to draw money back because they are unclear about how the system works.
According to the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) apprentice numbers have also fallen in the rail industry.
NSAR estimates that the rail sector pays around £35 million into the levy each year, with at least half of the industry’s workforce thought to be employed by levy-paying companies. Despite this, the sector is only drawing down around 20 per cent of the amount it pays in.
During CP6, between £175 million and £190 million will be paid into the levy but, if the current trend continues, only £35 million will be invested back into the industry. Based on these figures, £140 million could leave the sector over the next control period that could have been invested in training existing staff and employing new apprentices.
In response, NSAR has launched a partnership between 15 further education colleges and the industry to help companies to better understand and deliver apprenticeship schemes. The problem, NSAR believes, isn’t a lack of demand for apprenticeships but a lack of opportunities.
“Overall, apprenticeship levy payments, made by the industry, are sufficient to meet the training cost to deliver the target 4,500 apprentice starts each year. Demand for apprenticeships in rail is strong. But the availability of apprenticeships, across all employers, is low.”
However, some organisations have praised the levy for allowing them to expand their apprenticeship programmes.
Engineering consultant WSP said it has been able to double its intake of female apprentices since 2016 thanks to the levy. The number of female apprentices joining the company rose from nine in 2016 to 22 in 2017, with the total number of apprentices increasing from 41 to 70.
WSP said the levy had allowed the business to diversify its apprenticeship programme. It now offers apprenticeships for school leavers and degree-level apprenticeships.
High on the agenda
HS2 also pays into the levy, but Kate doesn’t believe it has moved apprentices any higher up the agenda.
HS2 still has a long way to go. The organisation has committed to creating 2,000 apprenticeships over the course of the project and is already subject to public sector targets which stipulate that 2.3 per cent of its workforce must be made up by apprentices. The companies which have been awarded the enabling works and the main works contracts are also contractually obliged to ensure that a certain proportion of their workforces are apprentices (2.5 and 4 per cent respectively) and they in turn are expected to include training targets in contracts with their suppliers.
A similar approach was taken on Crossrail, which Kate worked on between 2009 and 2015. Its contractors were required to hire either an apprentice or an unemployed person from the local community for every £3 million of spend.
The Elizabeth line’s operator, MTR Crossrail, also pays into the levy. It too believes the levy has benefitted the business, creating more apprenticeship training opportunities for existing employees.
The Crossrail operating concession includes a requirement for MTR Crossrail to employ seven apprentices each year, which would total 53 apprentices over the course of the contract. MTR Crossrail has already well exceeded its obligations, with 264 of its employees undertaking apprenticeship training since May 2015.
“I think people now assume that apprentices just go with the territory and they should just be looking to do that,” said Kate.
She added: “Things like the levy hopefully, in the next year or two, we’ll see more benefit from that.”
“I think we’re in an improving position,” said Kate, when asked how well she felt the industry was meeting its apprenticeship targets, but it remains a major challenge. Around half of the industry’s workforce is over 45 and approaching retirement, underlining the need for a demographic shift across the railway industry.
HS2 organises and attends skills events all around the country to highlight its apprenticeships to prospective students. Over the course of the past two years, HS2 has held 120 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) inspiration days, reaching more than 6,000 students aged between 11 and 14.
These opportunities aren’t exclusively for school leavers. People are working later into their lives and no longer have a “single shot” to decide on their careers, said Kate.
“We do need to continue to push not just young people but make sure that parents and teachers are aware of the apprenticeship route,” said Kate. “I think the kudos that apprentices are starting to get is really making a difference.”
However, it’s the words of current apprentices that often prove the most persuasive. “As I’m working on the role, I’m doing a lot of work out in the community, building a lot of relationships with stakeholders,” said Danielle, who is from Tonypandy in the Rhondda Valley. “It’s a great way for people to get into a work environment without having to go the university route. It’s hands-on experience that you’re gaining on the job. I think it’s invaluable.”