Why collaboration is crucial

Government, academia and industry must work together in identifying a long-term skills strategy.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The United Kingdom’s skills gap, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, is at its most pronounced in the transport and infrastructure spheres. The lack of skilled graduates and apprentices has a knock-on effect for the wider UK economy; and if we don’t produce the talent necessary to support transport and infrastructure – connectivity is after all crucial to every industry – how can we expect the UK to function efficiently or be competitive on the global stage?

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union draws this issue into sharper focus. There is a renewed urgency to achieve self-sustainability. If the UK’s major industries are to compete, then they must be able to rely on talent grown at home.

There is a lingering stigma surrounding STEM-centric industries which needs to be overcome. Too often, for example, transport and engineering careers are let down by inaccurate coverage by the press. Careers in the transport and engineering sectors should be presented as inspiring and engaging – a chance to have an active input in what makes the world go round.

One of the subsets of the UK’s skills gap is the stand-off between graduate and apprenticeship routes of employment. Successive governments have made the mistake of trying to present a distinction between the two, misguidedly prioritising the university degree option. Any auspices about social mobility, though, however well-intentioned, have been undermined by two salient points. The first is the tuition fee quagmire – the soaring cost of university can prove prohibitive for students put off by the prospect of long-term debt – and the second is that university learning is not necessarily the best environment for everyone.

There should be different options to suit different types of people. Concordantly, at Colas Rail we have noted that balance is one of our core company principles, and our graduate and apprenticeship schemes run in tandem instead of against each other. We have three different “trailblazer” apprenticeships (apprenticeships delivered to high, innovative, government-approved standards), a strong technical graduate programme and an award-winning Future Leaders graduate scheme; all of which offer clear, fast-tracked career pathways from entry-level to management.

As important as recruitment, of course, is retention. That 25 per cent of our current management team are from the Futures Leaders programme, we feel, is a sign of our strategic succession plan, across our business.

Colas Rail is an open-minded company and we have worked hard to move away from arbitrary screening techniques as a way of diversifying candidates who apply to our schemes. With the exception of our specifically engineering-related roles, there is no requirement to have studied a particular subject at a particular university, and certainly no heavy weighting on whether or not someone has got a 2.1. Instead, ability testing is at the forefront of our recruitment process. We have a behavioural framework that assesses future potential and use video interviews to add an extra layer of depth to covering letters and CVs.

Background, whether financial or in terms of race or gender, is no barrier to entry at Colas Rail. This is evidenced by a 49 per cent of female intake in our graduate programmes of 2017. We also make a point of paying any expenses required by a candidate to attend an interview or assessment day. Imagine missing out on the best candidate for a job because they couldn’t get to their interview.

At Colas Rail, we are keen to ensure that our entry-level positions are not pigeon-holed as such. “Our graduate and apprenticeship schemes,” as operations director Will Bryant explains, “are not annexed on to the company’s operations, but actually start with a significant level of responsibility from the onset. While the approach to throw young people into the deep end might carry some sink or swim risk with it, we are also confident in the company’s culture to serve as a catalyst for interpersonal development. We are proud to observe, then, an environment in which no one sinks.”

Bryant adds: “In our S&C Alliance, with both our conventional and high-speed enabling works, we have enhanced our overhead line capability with an emphasis on sustainability through bringing in apprentice linesman as well as building an overall OLE construction team to deliver complex OLE works. We are constantly looking to the future, bringing best practice from our international operations. As an example, sending our Future Leaders to Morocco to develop high-speed capability and delivering the additional knowledge straight back to the UK.”

Colas Rail’s proactive approach, though, is not enough on its own. Our techniques and training methods will be more effective if they are supported by better quality applicants and a better rate of uptake in STEM qualifications. Colas Rail suggests, therefore, that the UK’s overarching skills strategy should be three-fold: it must build, collaborate and develop the relationships between government, academia and industry.

With these three pillars in mind, Colas Rail has joined the Department for Education’s Skills Summit and is one of the key players in its Year of Engineering campaign. We also support the DfT’s Strategic Transport Apprentice Taskforce and the London Apprentice Ambassador Network. We are collaborating with key educational establishments such as the National College for High Speed Rail and provided their overhead line equipment for training at their Doncaster and Birmingham campuses. We have active relationships with University Technical Colleges (UTCs) across the country, particularly the Sir Simon Milton UTC in Westminster, where we are a member of its Stakeholder Engagement Group. UTCs rely on business engagement for their survival, their students require structured projects and work experience, and Colas Rail is committed to integrating practical training in education.

For the UK’s rail industry to endure and thrive, we must work hard to modernise and diversify routes to employment, all the while dispelling myths that STEM careers are just about hard hats and muddy boots. At Colas Rail, we have found that those coming to join our schemes at entry-level are best engaged and inspired by being shown the potential rewards that they could achieve themselves. Concordantly, we have senior members of staff and ex-participants of the schemes present at every assessment day to share insights.

It appears that the government is moving in the right direction with its rollout of new educational establishments like the UTCs, NCHSR, the new T-levels and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. Encouraging crossover between industry and academia, allowing the former to inform the latter of changing market trends and needs, can be the spur for solutions sooner in the pipeline. The key thing is for businesses to be involved in developing their future workforces. Building better educational frameworks, improving collaboration between stakeholders and developing talent should ultimately form the basis of the UK’s long-term industrial strategy.

Gemma Simmonds is head of career and development at Colas Rail.