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NSARE losing its E

The National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) is planning to drop the E in its name – a reflection, it says, of the organisation’s widening role as the industry’s skills ambassador.

NSAR will be gradually phased in over the next 12 months as the body looks to quietly rebrand itself as the industry authority on training quality and standards, encompassing areas of operations like driver training and service delivery which had been on the fringes.

‘This place says more about our ambition, about how we think about the rail industry…’ said NSAR chairman Chris Fenton, addressing members during the organisation’s annual general meeting (AGM) this month at the recently opened National Training Academy for Rail (NTAR) centre in Northampton.

Jointly funded by NSAR and Siemens, the facility, which currently specialises in traction and rolling stock engineering courses, is at the same time trying to position itself as a complete training centre for the industry.

Says Chris Fenton, who succeeded Terry Morgan as chairman in December last year, ’We really are equipping the next generation of talent and leaders and skilled professionals in the industry.’

NSARE was established in November 2010 to address the precarious issue of skills in the rail industry. One of the organisation’s central functions is its accreditation framework, which it delivers through an inspection process, similar to that used by Ofsted. Like Ofsted, NSAR recognises the Good and Outstanding providers; it also highlights those that are underperforming by its set standards.

NSAR is owned by its members, of which there are now more than 360. The AGM provided NSAR with the opportunity to recognise some of those which had achieved Outstanding ratings in 2015. But Robertson warned that changes in the inspection process in 2016 will make the standard harder to achieve in the future.

NSARE, as it was in 2010, was established thanks largely to funding from government. It had hoped to be financially self-sustainable by its third year. Chief executive Neil Robertson said that although the organisation had faced a funding gap at the start of the year, it was now ’in a much, much better position’. This brighter outlook will in part be achieved by revamping the membership process, NSAR has said.

The event was also used to present a new piece of research, commissioned by NSAR and carried out by Atkins, that suggests that the skills gap could cost the industry £316 million a year and government £381 million if it’s not addressed.

Robertson told members to practice talking about apprentices. From 2017, businesses with a payroll of more than £3 million will have to pay a levy. The government has said that companies who commit to developing their apprenticeship programme will be able to get more out of the levy than what they pay in. The levy will coincide with the creation of the Institute for Apprentices, an independent body which will regulate the quality of apprenticeship schemes.

It isn’t all about apprentices, however. The industry faces a challenge to up-skill its workforce in order to keep pace with the development of new technology.

Around 55,000 people alone will need some degree of retraining as part of the Digital Railway programme – a fact highlighted by Network Rail’s head of professional development and training, Guy Wilmshurst-Smith. But even finding people to deliver this retraining is a challenge. Guy said that Network Rail, like the industry as a whole, is having difficulty recruiting skilled trainers.

The need for a defined skills strategy hasn’t escaped the attention of Sir Peter Hendy or Dame Colette Bowe. Their reports both raise concerns about how the industry is going to assemble the workforce needed to meet the current aspirations for rail. NSAR believes that developing and delivering this strategy will be its biggest challenge in 2016.