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Debate | High speed rail skills

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Countries such as Japan, France and Spain, have become known for an expertise in high speed rail projects while the UK has to some extent slipped behind.

But High Speed 2 (HS2), the proposed rail link running from London to the Midlands and the North, offers the UK an unprecedented opportunity to develop its own high speed rail expertise and to market it worldwide.

There is just one problem: Britain is facing a skills shortage in construction and engineering, and with several other major projects on the horizon, such as Hinkely Point C or Crossrail 2, there will be strong competition for skilled workers over the coming decades.

The rail industry is responding to the challenge. As well as using marketing and PR tactics such as Twitter and Facebook campaigns to target young people choosing their careers, companies are also evaluating ways to attract more talent into the rail industry – and particularly into apprenticeships.

“How do we improve that attractiveness within the [rail] sector?” asks Gensler aviation and transportation practice area leader Hiro Aso.

Gensler is one of the world’s leading design firms. It is behind the design of One Belleview Station in Denver, Colorado, which used the railway line as an inspiration for the design of the office block above it. It has also been involved in the design of San Francisco’s new Chinatown station.

Hiro aso cropped

Hiro aso cropped

Aso: Asks how the rail sector can make itself more attractive to people starting their careers

“If people can’t be excited about being part of this amazing industry…maybe we’re focusing on the wrong bit of it,” says Aso.

Education has a big role to play by providing more technical opportunities for young people. In September the National College for High Speed Rail opened its doors to the first cohort of students across two campuses, one in Doncaster and one in Birmingham. Allied with High Speed 2 Ltd, the college is aiming to train the next generation of highly skilled technicians to work on the mega-project.

National College of High Speed Rail chief executive Claire Mowbray explains how the college offers apprentices something new, with topics covering rolling stock, track, technical and civils expertise.

“I think the really positive thing that we’ve seen is that young people are interested, they are excited about High Speed 2 and what that’s going to mean,” she says.

Popular BBC programme “The One Show” featured the college during its first open week. Mowbray recounts how the crew was  fascinated by the technology being used in teaching, including building information modelling – and how they were impressed by the fact that 35% of apprentices are female.

I think the really positive thing that we’ve seen is that young people are interested, they are excited about High Speed 2 and what that’s going to mean

Claire Mowbray, National College for High Speed Rail

She describes the college as a “talent pool for the future,” stressing how supportive the industry has been: £5M of kit has been donated to the college, while plenty of work placements and mentoring opportunities are on offer for the students.

But the college is not just for young people. Although students must be 18 to enrol, there is no upper age limit and courses cater for those with some prior knowledge who want to upskill. “I think we really need to challenge ourselves about what that traditional apprentice model looks like,” says Mowbray.

While the college caters for adult students, other institutions pitch to a younger audience.

University Technical Colleges (UTCs) teach pupils aged 14 to 19. Unlike standard schools, UTCs are allied to a local employer and a university partner, and offer practical experience students can use in the workplace.

Students are offered a technical specialism linked to a skills gap in the area, alongside the usual arts and humanities subjects studied at GCSE.  As well as focusing on science, engineering, technology and maths (Stem), UTCs operate a longer day than mainstream schools. Pupils work from 8.30am to 5pm, so they more time to develop their technical specialisms and experience of a working environment.

If people can’t be excited about being part of this amazing industry…maybe we’re focusing on the wrong bit of it

Hiro Aso, Gensler

The model may be less than a decade old,  but more than 50 UTCs will have opened by 2018.

Colas Rail is a big recruiter of railway engineers, taking on 15 to 20 graduates annually. Its head of career and development Gemma Simmonds believes UTCs could be crucial to boosting the skilled workforce in high speed rail technology.

“Some of the work that the UTCs are doing is really critical in bringing through the 14 to 19-year-olds into STEM subjects,” she says.

“If those UTCs work, they’re a perfect picking ground for students to then work into industries like ours.”

There’s a lot we could do to support some of these institutions, whether it’s the National College of High Speed Rail or the UTCs,

Gemma Simmonds, Colas Rail

Colas Rail has been supporting the Sir Simon Milton Westminster UTC, which opened its doors this September, with open days and work experience opportunities for students. Real, work-based projects are offered so the UTC students get an idea about  what future career paths they can have in the rail industry. Colas Rail offers several apprenticeships for school leavers and graduates too.

Pupils have not closed the door to higher education by attending a UTC. Professor Peter Woodward, chair in high-speed rail engineering at Leeds University, says that students at a local UTC can gain the necessary qualifications to study an MSc at the university. Leeds University is now developing new MScs and PhDs in high speed rail.

But UTCs are a relatively new addition to the education mix, and they face a credibility problem. According to education publication Schools Week, many existing UTCs failed to fill around half the available places in the last academic year. While five new UTCs opened in September, four closed their doors or became sixth form colleges over the summer.

The age of enrolment could be off-putting to pupils and parents. UTCs take students from 14 years old, the age at which teenagers start studying for their GCSEs. Although GCSEs are still studied at UTCs, alongside more technical subjects, parents in particular are likely to be wary about their child switching schools at such a crucial time.

Peter woodward cropped

Peter woodward cropped

Woodward: People have not closed the door on higher education by going to a UTC

So what can the industry do to help boost popularity of technical routes?

One option could be to focus on persuading parents. For its 200th anniversary next year the ICE is staging a series of events to increase public awareness of civil engineering and of what civil engineers contribute to society.

Part of the campaign will have a targeted focus on mothers, as they are considered to be the biggest influences in children’s career choices.

But Simmonds believes firms could do far more to help spread a positive message about technical education.

“I think there’s a lot we could do to support some of these institutions, whether it’s the National College of High Speed Rail or the UTCs, to actually really help with the PR side of it,” she says.

Woodward agrees, arguing that industry must help attract students into technical routes.

“The universities and the colleges can’t do it all on their own, so if that is the message we want to get across, then please help us to get that message across,” he says.

We’ve probably had a bit of a dip where we did prioritise graduates a little bit above apprentices

Peter Kirk, Balfour Beatty

Existing issues concerning higher education could also help to push pupils towards alternative technical routes.According to the Institu te for Fiscal Studies (IFS) students can expect to graduate with an average of £50,000 of debt, rising to £57,000 for the poorest. Meanwhile apprentices earn while they learn and often do not pay course fees.

So why has the level of debt accrued from taking a university course not put more young people off?

“Absolutely I think it’s been a few years to come through, but now it’s started to be ‘oh maybe that’s not the necessary route [university education], maybe there are other routes’,” says Anderson.

“And I think maybe that leads towards the UTCs and the high speed colleges.”

Businesses are changing their minds about university educations too, explains Balfour Beatty business development director Peter Kirk.

“If we were to go back say, maybe 20 years, apprentices were at the absolute forefront of our business,” he says.

“We’ve probably had a bit of a dip where we did prioritise graduates a little bit above apprentices. But we’re certainly seeing a shift now back to much more of an even balance.”

Discussion participants

This report is based on a round table discussion that took place in London in October. The participants were:

Simon Aldrich leader of urban development and infrastructure capability, Golder Associates

Iain Anderson managing director, Colas Rail urban

Hiro Aso aviation and transportation practice area leader,


Will Bryant operations director S&C south alliance, Colas Rail

Nick Dunne  director of technology, Siemens Rail Automation

Jerome Furge director, Bouygues Travaux Publics

Mark Hansford editor, New Civil Engineer

Derek Holden director, Aecom BD

Anil Iyer chief operating officer, Association for Consultancy & Engineering

Peter Kirk business development director, Balfour Beatty

Clair Mowbray chief executive,National College of High Speed Rail

Gemma Simmonds head of career and development, Colas Rail

Steve Swain project director, Tarmac Bogel

Peter Woodward high-speed rail engineering chair, Leeds University

In association with

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Colas logo





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