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Building HS2’s high-speed workforce

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HS2 is moving from concept to reality. Achieving royal assent was a green light for construction to begin on the London to Birmingham high-speed railway and HS2 will say, with some confidence, that it has everything in place to make the move from design to delivery. But how well prepared is the industry’s workforce?

Research carried out by HS2 estimates that only 16 per cent of the workforce is trained to the higher technical standards that will be required; only around half of the workforce is categorised as semi-skilled. Added to this is the well-publicised demand for brand new engineering staff.

The shortfall isn’t just being felt by the railway industry. The not-for-profit organisation Engineering UK believes the country will need 182,000 engineers every year up to 2022 to deliver the current project portfolio. This equates to the training of roughly 56,000 new engineers over the next five to 10 years.

‘With HS2 gearing up now, we know that they are going to require an average of 10,000 employees over a 10-year period on the construction of HS2. At its peak that goes up to 24,000 per day and that is a significant number,’ said Clair Mowbray, who was appointed as the National College for High Speed Rail’s chief executive in September 2016, having joined the organisation in 2014.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced the creation of the college’s Birmingham and Doncaster campuses in September 2014. Both sites are now close to completion and will be ready to open their doors for the first time in September this year. Facilities include virtual reality (VR) labs, a digital signalling suite, driver simulators and a 100-metre long test track.

Although HS2 is the main priority, the college will be central to the ongoing development of rail’s wider engineering workforce. Says Clair, ‘The National College for High Speed Rail is focussed on ensuring that we’re training people with the right skills that are needed across the industry for HS2 but also for the modernisation of the existing rail infrastructure.’


Between them, the two sites will initially welcome 100 apprentices. Following a period of review and refinement, the college will also begin offering a Higher Technical Certificate qualification and, crucially, the continuous professional development required to upskill existing staff to the specific technical standards required for high- speed rail.

Continuous professional development and the offer of conversion courses to engineers from other industries will become an important part of the college’s remit. For existing staff, the college will offer short courses, said Clair, which could be offered at one of the campuses or at the employer’s site.

The college has so far developed a Level 4 Higher Apprenticeship High Speed Rail Infrastructure Technician, an Operational/Departmental Manager Level 5 Higher Apprenticeship and the High Speed Rail and Infrastructure Level 4 Higher Technical Certificate.

At its peak, the college expects to welcome 1,200 new starters each year – 50 per cent of which will be apprentices. Achieving this goal is very much dependent on how well the college engages with the industry. The support received so far has been very welcome. ‘Over the last 12 months it’s really ramped up,’ said Clair. ‘The level of support and the size of donations we’ve been getting has been fantastic.’

CGI of Birmingham campus


For the past couple of years, the college has been collecting signatures from engineering contractors and rail industry employers keen to sign up to the college’s leadership pledge.

By adopting the pledge, companies commit to supporting the college in various ways; this can include sending learners to the college, offering teaching support and work experience placements, helping shape the curriculum or supplying equipment for the two sites. For students who aren’t on apprenticeships, the pledge allows the college to be able to offer valuable real-world placements, also allowing businesses to talent- spot early.

The college has received a lot of interest from people working in the industry wanting to find out about becoming trainers, says Clair. By 2020, the college expects to have a staff body of around 75 people – backed up by a large pool of industry mentors.

‘It’s really important that we have a high quality teaching staff that can engage people. Having people from industry is fantastic because they come with all of the experience of projects and have worked through issues and problems from the real world of rail.’

They will also work with other training providers and learning centres to meet the demand set by HS2. Part of the challenge will be ensuring that third-party trainers are meeting the high standards that the college is setting, Clair admits.

‘What’s really key to me is that any education partner that we take on delivers to the high standards we need, so that all of our employers and students are benefitting from an outstanding experience.’


The college sites on Birmingham’s Dartmouth Middleway and Doncaster’s Carolina Way will further strengthen two well- established railway centres. The Birmingham facility will also extend the Innovation Birmingham campus and help grow the city’s high-tech engineering output.

‘We’re trying to really build on the expertise that is in both locations and make sure that it becomes at the cutting edge and leading developments.’

She added, ‘I think it’s really important from a diversity point of view as well to make sure that we are attracting people who wouldn’t ordinarily think of the rail industry as being the industry for them, whether that be gender diversity, whether it be BME (black and minority ethnic) diversity, disability. I mean there are opportunities within this industry; we need to make sure that people know what those opportunities are and then equip them with the skills that they need.’

The college is still recruiting for new apprentices starting for the September intake, and currently engaging with employers: both on training existing staff members and supporting them to source new apprentices from the talent pool the college has identified.

Just short of a thousand prospective students have signed up for updates from the college. As Clair puts it, NCHSR is a brand new college offering a different kind of engineering education and part of their job will be to reassure parents that it will lead to rewarding careers for their children.

CGI showing interior of Birmingham campus

Says Clair, ‘People understand that there are opportunities coming forward and they want their son or daughter to be able to maximise those opportunities. When you talk to them about what we’re going to deliver and what we can offer their child… they understand and are very positive about the fact that this is to do with real work. This isn’t a subject that has no outcome and I think for a lot of parents who are concerned about what their child is going to do as their next step, we can help and support them.’


Although daunting, the high-speed skills gap is being addressed, Clair believes, but the responsibility doesn’t fall solely on the college.

‘The national college is not the only solution: there are employers with their own apprenticeship programmes who are doing their own delivery, and a network of colleges and training providers offering provision at lower levels. I’m clear that we are seeking to complement this provision, not compete,’ says Clair.

‘But I think that we are the organisation really putting the focus on the skills that are needed for high speed. I’m really positive about where things are going for us… and I think through us delivering training and the skills, we are enabling HS2 to deliver what it needs to deliver. We are a college by the industry for the industry, and are keen to hear from businesses who want to get involved and benefit from our offer – this partnership approach will have a tangible impact on the sector’s skills issue.’

To find out how your organisation could become a partner or for details about September’s apprenticeship intake, contact [email protected] or visit www.nchsr.ac.uk

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