Apprentices will keep tomorrow’s railways on track

As an industry reliant on apprentices, rail must come together to face the challenges of the future, according to Simon Rennie, NTAR general manager, and Dan Walker, head of apprenticeship delivery, rolling stock, Siemens Mobility Division.

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The rail industry is, like so many industries, experiencing a period of rapid change. Changes in how people live, work and commute, as well as the emergence of exciting new technologies, mean the whole industry is in flux. This will create exciting opportunities for the rail employees of tomorrow, but also a need to address the unknown and to prepare for it. A crucial part of this will be adapting our apprenticeship training, and giving apprentices the tools they need to be ready for this new reality.

At Siemens, we have always had a commitment to upskill and train our staff. The company is one of the UK’s largest engineering employers, with in excess of 500 apprentices currently enrolled with the firm. Our apprenticeship scheme was graded “outstanding” by Ofsted. Apprenticeships are historically integral to engineering due to the highly skilled and particular nature of the work. By taking on an apprentice, you gain an individual who is motivated, enthusiastic and at the outset of a new career. They are embedding skills and values into how they operate, and between employer and apprentice develops a two-way, long-term loyalty that creates longevity of service and a standard of work that can often exceeds that of a graduate employee.

Within Siemens UK Mobility, the rail systems rolling stock division employs 850 people, of which 100 are current apprentices or have passed through the apprenticeship scheme. The Thameslink programme, through which Siemens has supplied 115 commuter trains to London, shows clearly the progression of apprentices and their importance to the company. Within nearly every team working on the project, a former apprentice is performing a crucial role as a technician, a specialist, or a manager. We are seeing the effects of the investment in these young people: they are now our leaders and technical experts.

Siemens has always had ambitious targets in place for apprentice numbers, and we welcomed the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, and the shift from the apprenticeship frameworks to the employer-devised standards. These two key developments fit neatly with Siemens’ collaborative approach to skills development. We work closely with partners and customers to create apprenticeship programmes that benefit from our industry expertise and standardise a high-quality experience for learners.

In 2015, Siemens in Collaboration with the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) launched the National Training Academy for Rail (NTAR) with funding and support from the Department for Business, Energy, Innovation & Skills (BEIS) and the Department for Transport (DfT). The Academy is a skills development centre aimed specifically at addressing the skills gap in train maintenance and fostering the next generation of highly trained rail engineers. It is a quality-assured rail training specialist that provides top class rail engineering apprentices (typically to those leaving school or college) but also training to those changing careers or who work within the industry and are upskilling on the back of the introduction of new technology.

To make a tangible contribution to the long term skills development in the sector, NTAR’s training is available to the wider UK rail market. When developing the centre, Siemens and NSAR consulted widely with other train operating companies and manufacturers to collectively help define the needs of the industry. Equally since 2016 NTAR has delivered the “Trailblazer” Rail Engineering apprenticeship standards based on content and learning outcomes defined jointly by a broad group of employers so that it delivers high quality and consistent schemes that are valued and recognised across the industry. This also means that learners from different organisations interact; networking forms a core part of the programme.

We believe that skills are “pre-competitive” because of the scale of the existential threat that we as an industry face together. With a severe skills shortage looming, if “competing” organisations do not work together on creating a sustainable workforce, then an environment of rampant poaching and painful wage inflation will emerge. It is in everybody’s interest to work together on common standards, building a workforce that’s going to be widely useful. This is exactly what NTAR was established to do.

As the skills requirements within rail engineering continue to adapt to technological developments, skills training must stay alert and adaptable. Luckily, the new Rail Engineering Apprenticeship Standards are already quite flexible, allowing employers to deliver lots of different career pathways. If you have a changing technology, forward-thinking companies have the capacity to re-evaluate content, and adapt as required to keep it up to date.

However, when it comes to “future-proofing” apprenticeships, there are two important points to consider. Firstly, an emphasis on soft skills and behaviour is crucial, as together they form the part of an employee’s skill-set that never goes out of style. Regardless of other changes, behavioural and problem-solving skills will always serve an apprentice well, throughout their career.

Secondly, by taking apprentices on the technological journey that the company is on, a hands-on, real-time learning experience can be fostered. For example, a traction and rolling stock apprentice at Siemens also has the opportunity to learn about electrification or telecoms, as we are seeing more of these technologies being combined on trains. This is not offered as a separate course, but as part of their occupational development. NTAR sets out to make the whole experience as seamless, paperless and digital as possible, as we know this is the kind of environment these apprentices will be working in, five to ten years down the line.

Apprenticeships at Siemens delivered through NTAR are training people to be the professional engineers of the future. With the right support and facilities, we are helping them to become the problem solvers of tomorrow, and to work in the fast-moving technological environment that is already here, and is only set to intensify. Delivering apprenticeships of the highest standard is an upfront cost, but apprentices are a hugely cost-effective investment in the long-term. Their work will not only ensure the health of Siemens, but the industry as a whole. That is why we are so keen to collaborate with stakeholders across rail to give apprentices the very best chance at succeeding in tomorrow’s exciting engineering market.