HomePeopleApprenticeships are changing for the better - but negative headlines could give...

Apprenticeships are changing for the better – but negative headlines could give them a bad name

Network Rail’s head of training strategy believes apprenticeships are changing for the better but that negative headlines could give them a bad name

Apprenticeships are undergoing a major rebrand. Access to new funding is opening up apprenticeships to more people than ever and the assumption that they are reserved solely for teenagers and those in their early 20s is becoming outdated fast.

“It can be anyone and everyone and, for me, that’s really important for creating social mobility opportunities for new and existing employees, but also supporting our business needs around skills gaps,” said Michelle Nolan-McSweeney, head of training strategy at Network Rail.

Michelle describes herself as a champion of apprenticeships. She joined the industry as an apprentice 32 years ago and, up until a couple of years ago, oversaw the development of Network Rail’s apprenticeship scheme before taking on her current role.

Michelle feels that the modern rail apprenticeship is considerably different from the scheme she joined at British Rail.

“I think, by and large, we see high quality apprenticeships now which are much more focussed on an occupation and an outcome,” said Michelle. “I think there’s now an expectation of good quality mentoring, that line managers provide support, that there’s the right blend of on-job and off-job learning.“

Photo: Phil Adams.
Photo: Phil Adams.

Responsible employers

But the image of apprenticeships has been blemished in the past few weeks. Research conducted by the think tank Reform suggested that there are businesses which are ‘rebadging’ existing training courses as apprenticeships to access new levy funds. This in turn drags down the quality and reputation of apprenticeships across the board.

Michelle wants to see low-quality apprenticeships removed from the market so that the responsible employers that are using apprenticeships to address industry skills gaps and technological change aren’t tarnished with the same brush.

“I genuinely believe the majority of employers are intending to use apprenticeships for the good of social mobility, for the good opportunities they bring around job creation and so on.”

Michelle disagrees with critics who claim that the levy, and apprenticeships in general,

aren’t working. She added: “I really want that to be dispelled.

I don’t want those headlines to be around in another year’s time.”


In April 2016, Network Rail worked out that it needed to deliver 800 apprenticeships a year to support the government’s target to create 30,000 transport apprenticeships by 2020 and meet the 2.3 per cent apprentice target it is obligated to meet as a public sector organisation. Last year, Network Rail managed 819 apprentices – around half of which involved the upskilling of existing employees.

Michelle believes the apprenticeship levy is opening the door for existing staff to pursue apprenticeships later in their careers. Examples may include employees looking to retrain in another area of the business or those who want to prepare for the introduction of potentially disruptive technologies. “In many respects it’s a good thing because it’s enabling us to leverage more opportunities for people,” said Michelle.

However, there are areas of the levy that Michelle would like to see addressed.

Under the current system, levy funds can’t be used to cover capital expenditure, which means companies aren’t allowed to spend the money on new equipment or training facilities. They can’t use their levy contributions to support existing training partnerships with University Technical Colleges (UTCs) and they’re unable to put any of the money towards an apprentice’s travel or relocation expenses.

“If we could use the levy to assist relocation we would have a much more effective social mobility system in the UK,” said Michelle. Network Rail is currently lobbying for these changes to be made.


Supporting SMEs

In addition to her role at Network Rail, Michelle chairs the transport and logistics route panel at the Institute for Apprenticeships. There are 15 route panels altogether, covering a variety of industries, and their job is to recommend and review the necessary apprenticeship standards for their sectors.

“I think the industry’s striving hard to achieve the apprenticeship targets that were set through the transport infrastructure skills strategy,” said Michelle. “We all want talented and ambitious people of all ages in our organisations, and I think there is a fundamental shift that people will see from the last year that those numbers are increasing and will continue to increase.

“I feel really positive about this but there is more to do about making people aware of apprenticeships and their benefit, particularly in the supply chain and at the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) level, so I’m not resting on my laurels. The fact that we’ve got close to our target in Network Rail is fantastic, but I do believe we’ve got more to do to promote this more widely.”

Network Rail doesn’t suffer from a lack of demand for its apprenticeship programme. More than 4,000 applications have been submitted for 167 Level 3 apprenticeship roles which are due to start in September. However, the organisation is striving to broaden the diversity of its new entrants. By 2020, Network Rail is aiming for 20 per cent of its staff to be female.

Network Rail also works with its supply chain to identify alternative opportunities for unsuccessful applicants, but SMEs have different barriers to overcome and often struggle to release staff for long enough to complete the required off-the-job training.

Michelle is encouraging businesses who would like to offer apprenticeship opportunities within their organisations to contact Network Rail and see what support they can provide.

Michelle added: “Come and talk to Network Rail if you’re in our supply chain because we are committed to supporting apprenticeship development. And that’s whether you join one of our own apprenticeship programmes, or we advise you on how you can build a cohort through our provider network, or to use the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR), who clearly can match apprentices with employers – and that’s very much something I would advocate.”

Read more: Is the rail industry reaping the benefits of the apprenticeship levy?