Increasing Apprenticeship Numbers in the Rail Industry

Posted on 29 May 2024

​Across the UK there is a large awareness around the current and upcoming skills shortages within the rail sector. The main way to bridge this gap is by bringing in more apprentices into organisations.

The rail industry needs to focus on attracting more apprentices, as well as supporting employers to take them on and deliver high-standard training. More has to be done across the industry to address these shortages and bring in more young talent with the appropriate skills.

In our latest blog we look into why the industry needs more apprentices, the benefit to employers and the industry as a whole, what the barriers are for attracting new apprentice talent and the solutions.

Why does the Rail Industry Need More Apprentices?

The rail industry is undergoing unprecedented government investment to deliver new and upgraded infrastructure, alongside facing a significant skills gap with staff shortages that will continually get worse unless more is done to attract and retain talent in rail, this is accompanied by needing to up-skill and re-skill the current rail workforce.

Six years ago, the rail industry offered very few apprenticeships, around 750 annually. Despite the availability of apprenticeship levies to rail employers, the uptake and utilisation of apprenticeships were low compared to other sectors. The industry has been continually striving to increase these numbers and has achieved positive results.

Various factors, such as government investment in rail projects, a decrease in apprenticeship numbers during COVID-19, and an ageing workforce, have changed the landscape. Currently, the rail sector needs approximately 5,000 apprentices annually, or 2% of the workforce, essentially doubling the current average levels.

The Benefits of Apprenticeships for the Rail Industry, Employers, and Individuals

Apprenticeships are crucial for the industry, employers, and apprentices. They provide a continuous supply of qualified talent, making it more cost-effective to train new employees rather than paying inflated wages for existing talent. Apprenticeships also equip individuals with the practical, hands-on skills needed in modern railway operations.

For employers, training apprentices is profitable. According to NSAR data, every £1 spent on rail skills training in the UK yields a £3 return. Apprenticeships ensure that employees develop the right skills for the business, with training costs supported through levies. With an ageing workforce, apprenticeships facilitate the systematic transfer of knowledge.

On an individual level, apprenticeships offer the chance to earn while learning and acquiring real-world skills. The diverse range of apprenticeships in the rail sector ensures there is something for everyone, from traditional rail infrastructure roles to new opportunities in IT and human resources. Importantly, apprenticeships provide an alternative route into employment, allowing people from all backgrounds to develop in-demand skills and pursue a lifelong career.

Addressing the Challenges of Attracting Apprentices and Supporting Employers

Despite these benefits, the rail industry still faces a shortage of apprentices. Addressing this issue involves promoting rail apprenticeships as a viable career path and supporting employers in hiring and training apprentices.

A significant barrier is the lack of supply. New strategies are needed to attract apprentices to rail careers, as most existing initiatives have reached their primary audience. The focus now should be on converting latent demand.

Local initiatives are already in place to attract cohorts of apprentices to programs that teach in-demand skills. On a larger scale, the Routes into Rail initiative aims to inspire and educate young people and career changers about the various entry pathways available in the rail industry, demonstrating that there is a job and a career for everyone in rail.

Large rail projects also dedicate resources to finding, enrolling, and supporting apprentices, as training apprentices is often a contractual requirement. The rail industry takes pride in being a leader in making apprentice training a contract requirement for large projects.

Another challenge is the lack of support for employers. Some employers may have a clear understanding of their apprenticeship needs or have already recruited apprentices and require minimal assistance with levies, planning, assessment, and quality assurance. Others may need more intensive support, such as workforce planning, apprentice sourcing, and apprenticeship management.

NSAR's Apprenticeship Agency

To address employer concerns, NSAR introduced the Apprenticeship Agency, a new service that employs apprentices on behalf of businesses. This service identifies suitable apprenticeships to meet workforce needs, recruits apprentices, matches them with training providers and provides ongoing support throughout the apprenticeship. If a host business cannot continue with an apprenticeship, the agency will place the apprentice elsewhere.

The Apprenticeship Agency aims to mitigate the risks for businesses in the apprenticeship process, ensuring they get the talent they need to grow. NSAR is committed to increasing apprenticeship numbers in the rail industry.

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