For the first in a new series meeting rail staff at different stages of their careers, we sat down with rising rail apprentice Caitlin Gent
Pursuing her ambition of becoming an engineer hasn’t always been easy for Caitlin Gent. Two years since joining TransPennine Express (TPE) as the operator’s one and only engineering apprentice, she’s now close to making her dream career a reality, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
“I do get called a train spotter quite a lot,” said Caitlin, who is now used to the obligatory questions that follow when asked about work by friends and family. “I do find that, but it is a really interesting industry.”
Caitlin, 20, discovered her interest in engineering while she was in the Sea Cadets in her hometown of Chorley, Lancashire.
“I wanted to go into the Navy as a weapons engineer and I thought at the age of 16, I was quite young. There’s a big difference between a life at Sea Cadets and the Navy,” said Caitlin. Instead, she chose to take some time to consider her future, opting to go to college to complete her A-Levels – although engineering was absent from the syllabus.
Caitlin was one of only two students in her year group to consider an apprenticeship over university. The promise of earn-as-you-learn practical learning was more appealing than lecture theatres and student loans.
Caitlin applied for a number of engineering apprenticeships before successfully navigating her way through assessments and interviews to join the TPE programme in 2016.
“Really amazing. I was really, really chuffed. I was really thrilled and my family were very happy as well because I had applied for other apprenticeships in engineering before and I hadn’t been successful, so getting the knock-backs it’s quite hard to be determined to keep going.”
Behind the scenes
TPE’s engineering team deploys technical inspectors around the network who diagnose and fix faults on its trains to keep the network running.
While it is this role that Caitlin ultimately hopes to start at the end of her apprenticeship, she has spent time in various other areas of the business to understand what goes on behind the scenes.
During the first six to nine months of her apprenticeship, she learnt about customer service, train planning and performance; she shadowed conductors checking tickets and worked at stations on the front line.
She remembers how a visit to the Manchester rail operating centre (ROC) made her realise the knock-on effect disruption on one part of the network can have across the route. It gave her a new-found respect for those whose responsibility it is to lead the recovery.
“I think every apprenticeship should try and fit that in somewhere just for their apprentice to get an appreciation because it opens their eyes to other opportunities as well in the business,” said Caitlin.
Reflecting on her visit to Manchester ROC, she added: “It’s really, really fascinating and it’s something that I didn’t appreciate prior to being in the industry. It’s such a hard-working industry and I don’t think it gets enough appreciation for what the railway does for the public, but obviously I’m quite biased.”
Back in the NCHSR
Caitlin is required to do 20 per cent off-the-job training as part of her apprenticeship, for which she attends the National College for High Speed Rail (NCHSR). She’s currently got nine two-week blocks to complete at the college’s Birmingham campus.
Caitlin, who is on the college’s systems engineering pathway, is a good example of the industry-led approach the college prides itself on. The systems engineering course, as it is, won’t give Caitlin the qualifications she needs to be considered for the technical inspector role and so the NCHSR is having to work with TPE to ensure she will meet the operator’s employability criteria when the course is over.
Apprenticeships delivered through the NCHSR are project based and students have to complete a real world project for their employers as part of their end-point-assessment. Caitlin has chosen to take on a TPE franchise commitment to install hearing loops across its entire fleet by 2020.
“It will be a real great sense of achievement, so I am looking forward to it,” said Caitlin. “It will be a challenge as it is real life and as it’s a committed obligation we have to do it… so no pressure.”
Apprentice of the Year
Caitlin was surprised to find out in October that the NCHSR had chosen her as its ‘Apprentice of the Year’. She was even more surprised to be whisked down to London to attend a parliamentary reception and be presented with the award by HS2 chairman Sir Terry Morgan – who himself began his career as an apprentice.
Caitlin and her peers are well aware that the rail industry is on a demographic knife’s edge, with a large proportion of the workforce approaching retirement in the next few years. The messages about the demand for skills and high-earning potential are clearly getting through.
But none of these things were the deciding factor for Caitlin. “I think that engineering gives young people the power to make a change and to make a difference.”
Discussing apprenticeships as a route into the industry, she added: “I chose this apprenticeship scheme because it was just better for me, it was tailored more to what I needed for the way that I learn but there are other methods of getting into the railway.”
What does the future hold for Caitlin?
“Just take each step at a time and just progress as much as I can,” she said. “It would be nice to be fleet director actually, but we’ll see.”
Read more: First shoots of HS2