Skills forecasting is a tricky business. With advanced programmes like Digital Railway, it is not easy to know exactly how technology will evolve in the next five to 10 years and what kind of skills will be required.

‘When I first took over, we were doing it to bolster our workforce and now we’re seeing these individuals as our leaders of tomorrow,’ said Kevin Saron, who heads up the Rail Apprenticeship programme within telent. ‘With the railway changing so drastically and the Digital Railway coming in… it’s quite a hard thing to predict.’

The company has looked to adapt its apprenticeship blueprint in the last couple of years to meet its future needs. It has done so by analysing

feedback from those in the business and looking at changes within the industry to assess what level of proficiency its workforce will need in the future. To help do this, the Digital Railway programme is in the process of formulating a long-term strategy that will give company’s like telent the confidence to invest in training.

Some of the changes to telent’s apprenticeship scheme have focused on the delivery rather than the content. Whilst working as a construction manager on Thameslink, Kevin identified ways in which he believed the Rail Apprenticeship programme could return better results for the company.

Until a couple of years ago, apprentices would immediately undertake a mix of work placements, learning the theory at night through distance learning to achieve an NVQ Level 2 in ICT Systems and Principles.

The apprenticeship programme now puts an emphasis on classroom learning. Apprentices work towards an NVQ Level 3 in Electrical Engineering and spend a full year at Prospects College of Advanced Technology (PROCAT) in Basildon developing practical skills before they are deployed on a live site.

‘The big thing for us is our behaviour and culture which backs it up,’ said Kevin. ‘By bringing the engineers through our own apprentice scheme, the beliefs, the behaviours, the cultures are there all the way through.’

He added, ‘The work we do within telent is quite bespoke. The GSM-R work we’ve done is quite bespoke, the RETB work up in Scotland is quite bespoke… so the guys that we bring through like that they’ve already had the knowledge and they’ve worked and got the experience on these bespoke projects so when another one comes in it’s not daunting for them.’

As well as discussing best practice within telent, Kevin attends a forum between the various engineering companies that deliver their apprenticeship programmes through PROCAT. Although determined to hold on to them, Kevin recognises that investing in apprentices is good no matter where they end up. ‘The industry’s small. We’ll bump into them again,’

During a visit to telent’s headquarters in Warwick, three rail apprentices at different stages in the programme, Charlton, Joe and Alex, spoke about how well prepared they feel to take on the industry’s future engineering challenges.

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CHARLTON MCBRIDE, 23, COVENTRY

‘When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to do,’ said Charlton, who left sixth form with A-levels in sport science, drama and media.

Charlton plays Gaelic football and is a member of the Four Masters squad, which is surprisingly one of three Gaelic football teams in Coventry. As well as contemplating a career in sport, he had toyed with joining the RAF, and later considered university, before applying for the apprenticeship following a recommendation from one of his teammates.

Charlton was one of the last to complete the old format apprenticeships. The first project he worked on was an RETB scheme in Wales, followed by the resignalling scheme at Nottingham station in 2013.

‘It’s hard when you work away Monday to Friday and then you’ve got to make the most of your weekend really,’ said Charlton. ‘You’ve got to see the girlfriend, see family, try and fit sports in as well, but it’s good, I enjoy it.’

Charlton is currently undertaking a level three qualification in site management after which he plans to look into doing a level seven qualification.

‘There’s constantly going to be work on the railway,’ said Charlton who was also excited by the prospects presented by HS2. ‘We’ve just come on at the right time, so hopefully when HS2 does go off then we’ll be there ready. We’ll have the experience to go work on that.’

JOE NORTHORP, 21, COVENTRY

Working all day and then getting called out late at night isn’t for everyone, says Joe, but he quite enjoys it.

Like Charlton, Joe had been courting a career in sport before spotting the opportunity to join telent online.

Studying a degree only to later pursue a different career entirely didn’t suit Joe. ‘I think you find it a bit more rewarding being an apprentice because you’ve worked so hard for three years, or however long your apprenticeship was, and then you’re going into that industry afterwards… you’re always working towards something.’

Joe is two years into his three-year course. He was one of the first to complete the block training year at PROCAT. Having completed his first year, Joe went to work on the East West Rail project, delivering a new rail link between Oxford and Bicester. The project, which didn’t impose quite the same pressures as working on a live railway, was a forgiving introduction. Even so, Joe was keen to get involved and was undaunted by the tasks he was asked to complete.

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‘It’s responsibility you want to take yourself. It’s not just being forced upon you. You want to take responsibility yourself because you want to learn, you want to get better yourself.’

He added, ‘We want to do it, do it ourselves, do the work not just stand by and hand people tools, you want to actually get involved.’

ALEX ROBINSON, 21, LEAMINGTON SPA

Alex is the newest of the three recruits. With his year at PROCAT complete, Alex is now starting to put into practice some of the theory.

Having worked at sites in Swindon and Bristol, he’s now supporting a project in the capital. ‘Now I’m down in Euston, which is a survey and removal project. They’ve taken me down there to write spreadsheets to record all the data of removing and see what’s left so that’s given [me] a bit more responsibility within the project.’

Alex found information about telent’s apprenticeship scheme on the National Apprenticeship Service website. ‘To me it is a good opportunity,’ he said. ‘It lets you learn, get the skill and obviously the perk of being paid.’

The prospect of a digital railway, what it will mean for contractors and suppliers, is daunting. But there are steps being taken by the rail industry – at telent and elsewhere – to stay ahead of the curve, planning and studying now for a future that although more challenging promises to be much more rewarding than the past.