As skills shortages are starting to bite, LIBBIE HAMMOND talked to Alasdair Waddell, recruitment specialist at Network Rail, about the lessons that can be learned from its highly successful apprenticeship scheme

With the Government’s plans to reach three million apprentices by 2020 and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills stating a commitment to making England’s apprenticeship programme the best in the world, the overall issue of apprenticeships remains high on the agenda.

Apprenticeship schemes not only play a part in meeting objectives to boost skills and drive-up productivity for the country as a whole – they also widen access for young people to the professions and build the high level technical skills needed for the jobs of the future.

The last six months have seen quite a flurry of activity in this area, with the Prime Minister sharing his plans in August to boost apprenticeships and transform training (including a controversial Apprenticeships Levy) and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announcing an ambition to boost apprenticeships across the road and rail industry – pledging 30,000 apprenticeship places in the sector during the lifetime of this Parliament, with help from a transport strategy led by Terry Morgan, chairman of Crossrail.

Skills strategy
Indeed, the construction and rail sectors have long appreciated the value that apprentices bring to their businesses and many businesses already have sophisticated and highly regarded schemes in place. One such organisation is Network Rail, which prides itself on its very competitive and thorough apprenticeship programme, that offers candidates the opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge, in some cases up to degree level, while working and earning.

At the time of Patrick McLoughlin’s announcement, Mark Carne, Network Rail chief executive explained that the company needs a highly skilled workforce to enable it to deliver its multi-billion pound railway upgrade plan and a network fit for the 21st century. “That’s why we have a steadfast commitment to training and developing everyone from apprentices and graduates to up-skilling our 35,000-strong workforce and others across the industry with the latest digital, technical and engineering skills,” he said.

Why apprenticeships are so important
It is clear that The Network Rail Advanced Apprenticeship Scheme is a vital component of its recruitment strategy, and as Alasdair Waddell, recruitment specialist at Network Rail explained, it has been for a decade. “With a growing railway that is getting busier every day, we need to ensure we attract and develop a pipeline of valuable talent into our workforce to help us maintain our 20,000 miles of track and keep people moving. Today, more than 2000 apprentices have been through our scheme.”

Eighty-three per cent of these trained apprentices also still work for Network Rail, with many progressing onto senior positions within the company, proving again that its investment is being returned. “Our scheme has a retention rate well above the average, with a 95 per cent completion rate, more than 20 per cent ahead of the sector average of 74 per cent. This means that the young people we’re training are staying with the company and growing through our programme,” added Alasdair.

What also makes schemes such as this so important is the diversity of activities in which trainees can be involved. So at Network Rail for example, apprentices that complete the scheme can go on to develop their careers in a number of areas across the company. “The apprentices we have trained have progressed to become national aerial survey specialists, assistant track maintenance engineers, as well as team leaders and technical officers,” highlighted Alasdair. “Some on our current programme are working on the government sponsored Thameslink Programme – one of our biggest construction projects as we rebuild London Bridge and the railway around it.”

Creating future leaders
Many of the skills learned can be transferred across departments, as well as in different companies and even across industries. But as Alasdair noted, a high proportion of individuals remain with Network Rail once they’ve graduated, and today these people are working throughout the business in roles across signalling, telecoms, engineering and project management.

“A couple of examples of graduated apprentices that have gone on to excel within our business include Reece Martin, a senior project engineer. He joined our Advanced Apprenticeship Scheme in 2006 and has gone on to become a senior project engineer overseeing national development projects across the country, he’s also been promoted to a senior management position and gained his Institution of Railway Signal Engineers license.

“Another great example is Adam Fountain, now a scheme project manager, responsible for managing a £5 million maintenance project, which is crucial to keeping Britain’s railway moving. Adam has also been promoted four times since joining the scheme in 2006 and managed a number of large project teams along the way.”

Continually improving
While the scheme is obviously very successful, Network Rail is continually making improvements and appreciates that the benefit of the approach is not all about business success but the human element as well. Therefore, as part of the Advanced Apprenticeship Scheme’s ten-year anniversary, the organisation commissioned an employee survey to capture their views on the value that apprentices bring to the organisation. “That survey looked at what the scheme offers our apprentices and we’re thrilled to see that the partnership works both ways. Forty-seven per cent of our apprentices achieved professional accreditation earlier than their peers who hadn’t taken part in an apprenticeship, while 62 per cent felt they made a direct impact on the company at an earlier stage.”

What also sets the scheme apart is its inclusive nature – Network Rail doesn’t set an upper age limit for applicants for example. “The minimum requirements for applicants are four A*- C GCSEs, including English, Maths and Science however it is a candidate’s personality and aspirations that we are most interested in,” emphasised Alasdair. “We are keen for candidates who enjoy a more practical working environment, who embrace problem-solving tasks and want to kick-start their career by getting into work rather than continuing in the classroom.”

Conclusion
It is easy to see why Network Rail’s scheme can be held up as an example to other businesses that might be weighing up the benefits of creating an apprenticeship programme, and Alasdair would encourage those considering it to go ahead. “We think it is a fantastic way to boost your workforce,” he stated. “Apprentices have delivered fantastic results year-on-year for Network Rail and bring fresh thinking, a willingness to get stuck in and an eagerness to learn that really sets them apart.

“As a company we’re very proud of our apprenticeship scheme; it’s attracted a wide variety of talented people to our company who we’ve been able to nurture and develop. For anyone thinking about pursuing an apprenticeship, I would recommend strongly considering it. Apprenticeships give you the opportunity to learn in a hands-on fashion while getting paid, as well learning valuable life skills along the way – why not give it a shot!”