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Why I became a signalling apprentice

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Pulling cable through the interconnected tunnels of London Overground’s East London Line while most people are asleep is a world apart from the predictable hours of most office jobs. As one of Carillion’s signalling and telecoms apprentices, Ben Dawson, puts it, ‘There’s a bit of graft involved.’

The East London Line reopened in 2010 following a three-year reconstruction project delivered by Carillion and Balfour Beatty. Carillion was subsequently awarded a seven-year maintenance contract for the line, which connects Highbury & Islington with New Cross, Croydon and Clapham. Carillion’s responsibilities include everything from repairing the track and signals to removing graffiti and litter.

In August, Ben travelled down from his home depot in Crewe to London to help run some new signalling cable between stations. He would sleep during the day, visiting the capital’s sights when he got a chance, before descending into the tunnels around Wapping station at night. Halfway through his apprenticeship, Ben is now looking at what opportunities lie ahead, but signalling was not the career path he had originally planned.

Ben left school at 16 and immediately joined the army. While there he trained as an avionics technician, but part way through he sustained an injury and had no choice but to leave. ‘I was gutted to be honest with you, absolutely devastated,’ said Ben. ‘I didn’t really want to do anything else, I’d never seen myself doing anything else but you just had to take it for what it was really.’

Returning home to Stoke to recover, Ben, 18, found some information online about Carillion’s signalling and telecommunications apprenticeship scheme. Ben’s application was accepted and he was invited down to Bletchley to get his PTS.

Apprentices initially work towards an NVQ Level 3 in electrical engineering and an NVQ in signal installation, completing placements within different areas of business while attending college on day release once a week. For the placements, apprentices are sent to offices and sites around the country. For some of the apprentices, it will be the first time they’ve been away from home for days/weeks at a time. ‘It makes you quite independent,’ says Ben’s friend and fellow apprentice, Adam Critchley.

It is also an opportunity to visit new places. Says Ben, ‘Especially when you’re working night shifts because you can wake up at a reasonable time in the day and go out, see things, come back, have a sleep and go to work and have a laugh with the lads as well.’

This month, Ben will begin his final placement and in December he’ll start applying for jobs within Carillion’s signalling business. ‘I’m hoping to progress through the grades as quickly as possible and get as many safety courses under my belt,’ says Ben, who would eventually like to go on and train to be a controller of site safety (COSS). ‘It’s a bit more responsibility… It’s good if you want to put yourself out to go for them jobs.’

Ben Dawson


Adam is in the same position. The 21 year old from the Wirral spent two years looking for an apprenticeship after completing his A-levels before joining Carillion; he came across the opportunity on the government’s apprenticeship website and applied. Like Ben, Adam knew he wanted to do something practical, more hands- on, and he too is already looking to progress through the ranks.

‘I think it’s a great opportunity for me. I’ve got a whole career ahead of me now as well.’

Although Ben admits to not being a fan of the classroom, he says he really enjoyed the training elements and was full of praise for his two trainers, Jim Furlong and John Foster. ‘They won’t just throw a book at you. They’ll get you out on the training area and they’ll explain because they’ve been there themselves.’

He added, ‘You can get on with them as well. You can always go and talk to them about things if you’re struggling or anything like that.’


Last month, students around the country were collecting exam results. Record numbers have been offered a university place since, suggesting that high tuition fees aren’t having a marked impact on the numbers choosing to pursue undergraduate degrees. But the argument for apprenticeships as an alternative is compelling. A report produced by Barclays and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) has shown just a meagre 1.8 per cent gap between the lifetime earnings of graduates and apprentices. What’s more, it suggested that in some sectors apprentices could earn 200 per cent more over the course of their careers.

Convincing young people of this is still a challenge says Paul Martin, Carillion’s signalling apprenticeship manager, but there is no shortage of people looking to fill Carillion’s apprenticeship positions; more than 900 applications were received for the four places offered during the most recent intake.2626elltrainapproachingshoreditch091012_019_m

Paul, who gained his qualifications as an apprentice in the 1980s, spoke about his expectations for new starters today. ‘They’re really employed to be there to learn, to ask as many questions as possible and get involved.’


Although he hadn’t envisaged a career in rail engineering, Ben has quickly identified the opportunities that exist, particularly with the emergence of programmes such as Digital Railway. ‘It’s not just the new technology, it’s the new training that will be given for it. It’s extra qualifications. It all stands you well for promotion. It is exciting.’

Both Ben and Adam, who are based at Carillion’s depot in Crewe, say they are keen to support new apprentices joining the company. Ben recently travelled down to Bletchley to speak to a new class and answer questions about the scheme. It points to the friendships that are formed in these tight-knit groups. Every year, Carillion apprentices from all parts of the company organise a five-a-side football competition.

‘It’s a good relationship because all the apprentices are kept together as a group,’ said Ben. ‘We’re all in the same class at college; it’s a good environment to be in.’

Adam agreed. ‘At the start of the apprenticeship you are being introduced to the railway so you’re taking on a lot of knowledge. It’s nice to have those guys around you.’