Being scouted by a professional team is the goal for any aspiring footballer, but it’s also where the hard work really begins. ‘You’re classed as an apprentice, so you study while playing football for the first two years,’ explained Mitchell Nelson, who was signed by Colchester in 2009 before going on to spend two years at current Premier League side AFC Bournemouth, among other clubs.

His first couple of years as a professional were spent cleaning boots and sweeping up the changing rooms in addition to a demanding training schedule and playing fixtures. However, a bad injury sadly put Mitchell’s football career on hold, forcing him to re-evaluate his future and plan for a career away from the pitch.

Mitchell, 27, is now entering the final year of a signalling apprenticeship with Thales.

His dad and brother were both mechanical engineers and when a friend recommended Thales’ apprenticeship scheme, it sounded like an interesting opportunity.

The three-year scheme incorporates a combination of classroom and on-the-job training, with apprentices spending less time at college and more time completing placements within the business as the course goes on.

Aaron Lendor, 21, who has just graduated from the scheme, had been planning to go to university to study engineering before finding out more about the apprenticeship programme. For Mitchell, university was never an attractive prospect.

‘When they went to university, both my brother and sister were changing their mind a bit,’ said Mitchell. ‘And when they finished they didn’t even do the same thing they actually studied. For me, it was a huge benefit to be able to learn whilst working and earning good money.’

Based in London, Mitchell and Aaron have spent their apprenticeships working on one of the largest re-signalling projects currently underway anywhere in the world. Not a bad way to begin a new career.

4LM

Known as the Four Lines Modernisation programme (4LM), the project covers a series of major improvements to London Underground’s District, Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines.

Installation is now underway and the first section of line to use the new signalling will be commissioned in 2019 – the same year that the new Hammersmith Service Control Centre opens. By the time the project is completed in 2023, the entire network will benefit from service frequencies of up to 32 trains an hour across the network in peak times.

Mitchell worked with one of the teams tasked with surveying the tunnels of the Sub-Surface Lines; the data from which is being used to plan the installation of the sensors that will provide the signalling control centre with the positional data of trains on the network. Both Aaron and Mitchell have been seconded to subcontractor Kelly ITS to work with the teams installing the lineside infrastructure before taking up their role as testers. Opportunities for employees to take on these secondments is one example of the collaborative approach taken by the 4LM supply chain.

‘I was speaking with my mum yesterday and was saying how much of a good opportunity it is for us all,’ said Mitchell. ‘Years down the line, having experience on 4LM will be so good to have on our CVs. We were part of the modernisation of one of the biggest transport systems in the world.’

Paul Scott, who manages Thales’ signalling apprentices, said 4LM was ‘a great advertisement’ for Thales when looking to attract apprentices and graduates. ‘When we’ve got massive projects like 4LM, it’s almost one of the first things they talk about in their interview. It’s so widely known and certainly for those who live in London; it’s personal to work on the Underground lines which some use every day.’

FOCUS ON QUALITY

The security and publicity generated by major projects is something the rail industry will need to leverage in coming years to attract skilled young talent to fill the rail engineering skills gap that is so widely discussed.

The UK government has committed itself to creating three million apprenticeships by 2020 and next year it plans to introduce an apprenticeship levy to help provide the funding needed to achieve that target. Companies with a wage bill over £3 million will have to pay into the levy, but in turn will be able to draw from the fund to support apprenticeship programmes.

Most large and medium-sized companies appear to have already seen the value of setting up an apprenticeship scheme and hope the reforms will allow them to do more. Thales is a good example and says it is committed to getting the most from the £1.6 million it expects to pay into the levy from next spring by  continuing to develop its apprenticeship scheme. Says Paul, ‘Having run the scheme since 2013, the business is reaping the benefits that apprentices have had on operations, from bringing diversity and new ways of thinking into teams, to having a flexible and eager workforce on hand, keen to work where they’re most needed across Thales’ projects in the UK.’

Mitchell and Aaron both speak positively about their experience. Aaron said the plan for him, and the feeling among his apprenticeship group in general, was to ‘get as high as we can in the organisation as quick as we can’, showing the ambition and vision that undertaking the apprenticeship at Thales has inspired.

Aaron and others in his year have also become good friends. They regularly socialise at the weekends and after work or college. It illustrates the camaraderie between the apprentice groups, something which ‘makes going into work or college each day something to look forward to,’ says Aaron.

Paul, who began his career as a trainee with British Rail in 1990, was impressed by the progress made by his fledgling engineers.

‘Of all the jobs I’ve had, this is by far the most satisfying,’ he says. ‘To see these girls and guys come in and be very green to the industry and progress to where someone like Aaron is now. To get them, nurture them to a certain degree, and develop them to become top quality engineers – I’m a proud manager.’

Mitchell still plays semi-professional football: he’s a star defender at Welling United in the Vanarama National League South. But engineering is where his passion lies and he looks forward to promoting apprenticeships to others in the future. ‘I found out about an apprenticeship at Thales by it being recommended to me. I’m proud to talk about it, so if I can do that for other people, the benefit would come full circle.’