Taking on rail apprenticeships, it's well worth it

Major government investment in rail infrastructure projects throughout the UK has the potential to create up to 12,000 jobs every year over the next five to ten years, on top of existing funding to maintain and operate the railways. This opportunity for growth is exciting – however, the industry must respond to skills shortages, and do so quickly.

In addition to wholesale demand-led skills shortages caused by infrastructure spending, is an ageing workforce which is rapidly leading to a retirement cliff edge. Nearly 50,000 rail industry employees are expected to retire by 2030. And when these workers are replaced, it is often with an older person – the proportion of under-25-year-olds in the rail industry has halved since 2016, from 10% to 5% of the workforce.

The low number of under-25-year-olds in the rail industry can be attributed partly to the decline of new apprenticeships since COVID – however even prior to the pandemic the industry was not training enough apprentices to keep up with demand. NSAR analysis indicates that the majority of required rail workers over the next decade will be at skill levels that are often best served by apprenticeships. About 5,000 apprentices per annum, or 2% of the workforce, will be needed – effectively a doubling of current average levels.

Apprenticeships will help growth

Investing in training has significant economic benefits – NSAR evidence shows that £1 spent on training on rail skills in the UK results in a £3 return on that investment.

Apprenticeships are a great way to bring fresh, diverse talent into rail. The industry has been using apprenticeships for a long time and they work really well for the exciting and practical roles and careers we have. We also have an older, experienced workforce who are committed to sharing their expertise and knowledge. Structured apprenticeships are designed to pass on knowledge and skills. It's important to remember that apprentices don't have to be school or university leavers or even new to the industry – existing staff or recruits from other sectors are also great candidates for upskilling through apprenticeship programmes.

Overcoming barriers to hiring

There are barriers discouraging employers from taking on apprentices. Many are unsure where to start and some employers don't train staff as they fear, with some justification, that staff will be poached by the competition. Lack of supply creates another issue – primary demand has been delivered, so we need to find new ways of attracting apprentices to rail careers.

These barriers often mean that employers would rather just go to the market to recruit staff. But the wider market has shrunk, not least because of Brexit but also because of much demand in other sectors. It's wonderful that the industry is busy, but there are not enough people to service the demand. As employers interact with a tight market, wage inflation increases.

Another part of the problem is training. Training is a numbers game and typically you would want to have 12-16 candidates for an apprenticeship group or class. SME companies simply won't have enough apprentices to make training viable therefore we need to create cohorts for the training providers through working together.

Finding the right solution

Each employer is at a different stage in their apprenticeship journey. Some employers may have a good idea of their needs and may have already set up an apprenticeship programme and begun recruitment. These employers simply need assistance or advice with apprenticeship levies, planning, assessment or quality assurance.

Some employers will need more intense support including help with workforce planning, apprentice sourcing and management. This support could involve helping employers identify their apprenticeship needs, recruit appropriate individuals and match these individuals to quality training providers. This support may also incorporate the upskilling existing staff to meet in-demand industry skills.

Supporting employers on apprenticeships to meet industry demand will provide readily available cohorts of trainees to training providers which in turn will encourage more relevant programmes. Creating this positive loop will ultimately lead to an increase the numbers of rail employees with much needed skills.

With industry backing, NSAR is actively offering apprenticeship support to employers. Our Apprenticeship Support services can help employers with levies and programme planning and assessment. We have also recently introduced Skills Match to provide more intensive apprenticeship support with workforce planning, apprentice recruitment, programme development and training provider sourcing and relationship management.