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Training the Underground engineers of the future

More than 50 VGC Group apprentices are currently doing NVQs on the Track Partnership contract. Together with other apprentices on projects, including Crossrail, this means that the company has comfortably exceeded its ambitious 2015 target of five apprentices per 100 workers. Another group of apprentices is due to start shortly.

VGC’s apprenticeship programme starts with 13 weeks of classroom and on-track training, conducted by either Fastline in Rainham or Arc Academy in Watford. At the end of this period, VGC managers interview the apprentices, and those who show interest in a career in London Underground are invited to join the Track Partnership apprenticeship programme.

Apprentices receive the usual rates of pay for the job, as well as support for their training. They are placed in gangs with experienced foremen, who are carefully selected to support and develop them. Trainers meet apprentices once a week as they prepare for NVQ Level
2 in rail engineering underpinning knowledge, which is usually gained around nine months after starting the apprenticeship.

Long-term careers

Once apprentices have passed the NVQ, they can then progress their long-term careers within VGC, with the possibility of becoming foremen and then supervisors. After that, the opportunities for promotion are nearly limitless. For example, Terry Dutton-Wells, who became VGC’s HSQE director in 2002, started his career as an apprentice welder. Now semi-retired, he maintains a role within VGC as a non-executive director.

‘Rail is a great career,’ he says. ‘It offers so many openings in numerous disciplines. You get the opportunity to look at where you want to be in any aspect of the broad spectrum of industry activities.’

VGC has supplied labour to Track Partnership, the alliance of Balfour Beatty and London Underground that maintains the Tube network, for over 12 years. At any one time there will be up to 170 VGC team members working for Track Partnership right across London, generally overnight during the week, with some blockades and weekend possessions. Most shifts start at 10pm with handback the next morning in time for the commuter rush.

While the range of work is wide, most of the teams concentrate on laying new drainage pipes, building catch-pits, as well as repairing and restoring ballasted track, including replacing worn sleepers, rails, and points and crossings. They work across the network all year round: current projects range from station improvements at Ruislip in the west to track renewal at Upminster in the east.

Rudy Osborne started his apprenticeship in summer 2015. He has praise for his foremen, ‘Andy [O’Shea] and Michael [McCarney] always know what to do. If something goes wrong, they know how to fix it.’

Rudy, who describes himself as a ‘hands-on’ person, says he really enjoys getting involved in the job. ‘The teams are really good; always helping me out. They know I’m new and they’ve got a huge lot of experience – they teach me new things every shift.

‘I’ve moved around to different gangs and I’ve learned technical skills, how to use different machines and tools, and tips to make things easier. The teams make sure I learn the quick, easy, safe way to do things like keying and unkeying rail.’

Rudy views his apprenticeship as a way to get a start in the engineering industry, and he’s seen the way other people have progressed. ‘I really enjoy looking over at something once the job has finished and thinking I was part of making that.’

Says Ciara Pryce, VGC’s group services director, ‘Apprenticeship schemes give invaluable training opportunities and career direction for new entrants into the construction industry.

‘VGC believes that as a company we have a responsibility to invest in providing training and developmental opportunities to new entrants to the industry. As well as offering hands-on experience, guidance and life-long qualifications, we are proud that we convert apprenticeships into full-time employment for most of our trainees.’

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