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Apprentices – A mixed bag

National Apprenticeship Week was largely embraced as an opportunity to celebrate the valuable contribution of apprentices. For some organisations it was a good time to announce the creation of more opportunities: London Underground said it plans to bring in 350 new apprenticeships to help deliver major infrastructure schemes like the Northern Line Extension. But the week also presented a platform to address some areas in need of improvement.

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne acknowledged that a stigma still exists around apprenticeships. They should be treated as a positive choice, he believes, not an inferior option to full-time education. He said, ‘Our graduated apprentices are living proof that there should be no stigma associated with apprenticeships, and that with the right attitude and work ethic, you can reap the rewards alongside those who have chosen a university route.’

The issue of diversity was also raised. A report by the Young Women’s Trust found that for every 25 male apprentices in engineering, there is only one woman. It suggested that women are paid less and are less likely to be offered a full-time job once their apprenticeship is complete.

The report highlighted the distance that many industries, including rail, still have to go. The discourse from industry leaders indicates that things need to  change if the growth of the railway is to continue. They acknowledge that a diverse range of skills will be needed in the future – a mixed bag of candidates are now being urged to look at a career in rail.

30,000 BY 2020

Working with industry, the Government has set a goal of creating 30,000 apprenticeships in the transport sector by 2020 to make up for the shortfall of 60,000 engineers who will retire in the next five years. The man leading this is Crossrail chairman Terry Morgan, who began his career as an apprentice some 50 years ago. He estimates that there are currently around 7,000 apprentices in the rail industry – a figure that highlights the scale of the challenge.

‘At my grand old age, it really feels as though I’m giving something back,’ said Terry, speaking to RailStaff shortly after addressing Rail Exec Club guests at the Institute of Directors in March. He was joined by Loraine Martins MBE, director of diversity and inclusion at Network Rail, and Siv Bhamra, systemwide director on Crossrail for Bechtel.

Terry feels strongly about cultivating home-grown skills. ‘It’s always something I’ve felt very strongly about and at one stage in my life, I actually thought I’d almost given up the crusade, about the importance of giving everybody an opportunity, particularly through vocational skills, to learn their craft.’

Terry says he has seen many projects throughout his career rely on immigration to bridge the skills gap. ‘For me it was always a solution you could use but nevertheless, in legacy terms, left a huge gap of lost opportunities for our own people.’

Terry Morgan CBE - Chairman _216256

Having commentated from the sidelines throughout his career, Terry said by taking on this new role he now has no one left to criticise other than himself. But things are beginning to improve, he believes. Crossrail set out to employ 400 apprentices throughout the course of the project – it currently has around 550.

Crossrail, like many other organisations, brought its apprentices to the fore during National Apprentice Week. ‘Having only been on the project for three months, I feel like I’ve learnt so much,’ said Laing O’Rourke’s Zoe Conroy, who stars in a video produced by Crossrail about its apprentices. ‘Every day I’m out on site learning more and more because the environment is constantly changing.’

Terry believes that HS2 will go even further than Crossrail. ‘They’ll start earlier, they’ll take the learning from what we did and that will make a huge difference in terms of their commitment.’ He is also confident that, with investment in facilities like the new high-speed rail academies in Doncaster and Birmingham, the infrastructure is being put in place. ‘And there will be more,’ said Terry. ‘I mean Network Rail is building a new national college in Warwick, so there’s a lot of things happening. It makes me feel as though we’re putting in the capacity to support the ambitions that we’ve set out for apprentices.’

DIVERSITY

But the strategy isn’t just about numbers. Diversity underpins everything.

Loraine Martins said she doesn’t believe that rail has a problem with diversity; it’s just ‘come to the party a bit later than others’.

Opening the event last month, Loraine said diversity makes business sense for organisations. ‘There’s lots of evidence that indicates that where you have diverse teams you perform better, you have greater engagement; when you have greater engagement, you have greater safety; where you have greater safety, you have higher performance.’

Speaking to RailStaff, Loraine, who worked with the Olympic Delivery Authority prior to joining Network Rail, said she also felt that the debate sometimes needs to be extended beyond gender and ethnic background. ‘You’re also thinking about the diversity of experience and expertise backgrounds and you might want people who are not from the rail industry to come and help the industry modernise itself.’

On day one, National Apprenticeship Week was trending on Twitter, with more than 13,500 tweets including the #NAW2016 hashtag. By that measure it’s been a huge success, but we will have to wait until 2020 to know for sure.

Terry Morgan and Loraine Martins spoke at the first Rail Exec Club event of the year on 10 March. The next event will be held at The Grand Hotel in Leicester on 19 May.

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