How to increase apprenticeship numbers in the industry

There is widespread awareness of the current and upcoming skills shortages in the rail industry. Part of the solution to these shortages is training more apprentices. The industry must focus on attracting apprentices to rail and supporting employers to take them on and deliver quality training. Great steps are being made to reach this goal, but more needs to be done if rail is to address shortages and equip a new generation of talent with real-world skills.


Rail needs more apprentices

The industry is enjoying unprecedented government investment to deliver new and upgraded infrastructure. However, it is also facing significant skills gaps and staff shortages that will get worse unless it can inspire and attract a new generation of talent to a career in rail, as well as upskill and reskill the current workforce. The top 10 skills gaps require recruiting 153,000 additional people between 2023 and 2030. NSAR analysis shows the bulk of these will need to be at levels 2, 3 and 4 – often best served by apprenticeships.

Six years ago, rail was offering very few apprenticeships (about 750 each year). Take-up and utilisation of apprenticeships are low in comparison with other sectors, regardless of the wide availability of apprenticeship levies to rail employers. The industry has been working hard to increase apprenticeship numbers and has seen positive results.

But supply and demand factors – such as government investment in rail projects, apprenticeship numbers dropping during COVID-19 and an ageing workforce – have altered the situation. Rail now needs about 5,000 apprentices per annum, or 2% of the workforce – effectively a doubling of current average levels.


Apprenticeships are beneficial to the industry, employers and individuals

We all know how important apprenticeships are to the industry, employers and to apprentices themselves. Apprenticeship programmes supply the industry with an ongoing cohort of qualified talent. It is much cheaper to train new people than to pay inflated wages to attract existing talent. Apprenticeships are also a useful way of teaching the practical, hands-on skills the modern railway needs.

Training apprentices is beneficial to employers because it allows them to grow their profits. NSAR evidence shows that £1 spent on training on rail skills in the UK results in a £3 return on that investment. Apprentices develop the right skills for the business and employers are supported with training costs through levies. And rail has an ageing workforce – apprenticeships are a great way to systematically transfer knowledge.

Apprenticeships make a huge difference on an individual level too. Apprentices can earn as they learn and develop real-world skills. The wide range of apprenticeships available in rail means there is a role to interest everyone. While rail infrastructure apprenticeships have a long tradition, many roles are now being offered as apprenticeships – such as IT and human resources. Importantly, apprenticeships provide an alternate route into employment – giving people from all backgrounds the chance to build in-demand skills and a career for life.


Solutions to the issues of attracting apprentices and supporting employers

Despite these benefits, the rail industry still has a shortage of apprentices. So how can we address this? The answer is twofold – promoting rail apprenticeships as a career pathway and supporting employers to take on and train apprentices.

A barrier to increasing apprenticeship numbers is a lack of supply. We need to find new ways of attracting apprentices to rail careers – most of the levers have been pulled and the primary demand delivered. We now need to convert latent demand.

Initiatives are already in place that are aimed at attracting a new generation of apprentices into the rail industry. Smaller scale initiatives work at a local level to attract cohorts of apprentices into programmes that teach skills in demand in their area.

On a larger, sector-wide scale is Routes into Rail – a sector initiative aiming to inspire and educate young people and career changers on the variety of entry pathways available in rail, showcasing that rail has a job and a career for everyone. NSAR is the driving force behind Routes into Rail on behalf of the rail industry.

Large rail projects also have resources dedicated to finding, enrolling and supporting apprentices – as training apprentices is a contract requirement of many large rail projects. (Rail is proud that it was a leading industry in making apprentice training a contract requirement of large projects.)

Another barrier to increasing apprenticeship numbers is a lack of support for employers. Some employers might have a good idea of their apprenticeship needs, or have already recruited apprentices, and need ‘lighter touch’ assistance with apprenticeship levies, planning, assessment and quality assurance. Some rail employers might need more intense support – such as help with workforce planning, apprentice sourcing and apprenticeship management.

We know that businesses want to take on apprentices but have concerns. They might be worried about having enough work in the pipeline to keep apprentices for the length of the apprenticeship, or whether there is a sufficient range of opportunities within their business to allow apprentices to meet all their training needs.

That’s why NSAR has introduced Apprenticeship Agency, a new service that employs apprentices on behalf of businesses. We will work with the business to identify which apprenticeships best meet workforce needs, recruit the apprentice, match them with a training provider and provide appropriate support to the apprentice throughout their programme. If there is any reason a host business cannot continue with the apprenticeship, we will place the apprentice elsewhere.

Apprenticeship Agency aims to de-risk the apprenticeship process for businesses, ensuring they get the talent they need for their business to grow and NSAR is playing our part in helping to increase apprenticeship numbers in the rail industry.

Contact NSAR to find out more about Apprenticeship Agency and how we can help your business with apprenticeships.

Neil Robertson

NSAR Chief Executive

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