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Analysis | Industry jolted with apprentice targets for roads and rail jobs

Network Rail apprentice Daryl Levison

Ministers this week stepped up their determination to make the industry take apprenticeships seriously.

From March firms winning contracts with Highways England and Network Rail will either have to create one apprenticeship for every £3M to £5M of taxpayers’ money spent, or deliver a percentage increase in the number of apprentices employed each year during the lifetime of the contract. The overall aim is to have apprenticeships make up 2.5% of the workforce.

The move is key to the delivery of two government targets: to create 30,000 apprenticeships in the road and rail sector by 2020; and to see at least 20% of new engineering and technical apprenticeships in transport taken up by women. By 2030, the aim is that the number of women in transport are in line with the wider employment of women.

The announcement is part of the Transport infrastructure skills strategy being masterminded by Crossrail chairman Terry Morgan.

Morgan – a former apprentice himself – is unrelenting in his belief that the industry can and should do more to develop them.

Late last year Morgan led a New Civil Engineer debate centred on the responsibilities for attracting new talent into the industry. He made it clear that – in his view – some very large players are shirking their responsibilities.

“The very big public contracts that come out of the public sector are substantive game-changers and there are some huge projects that don’t have a skills agenda attached to them in terms of insisting that the supply chain actually make a full commitment,” he said.

“The better [firms] do it naturally, but there will be some who are … not making a commitment who will think they have a choice.”

Now, thanks to this week’s announcement, they do not.

The only words of caution concern the kind of apprentices the industry is now seeking.

The apprentice target for roads and rail is just part of the government’s pledge that 3M apprenticeships will have started by 2020.

As Morgan pointed out, “in very simplistic terms” hitting that target would mean that practically every school leaver between now and 2020 must become an apprentice.

That is not going to happen, so instead, Morgan says we will have to recognise that there will have to be different types of apprenticeships from the ones that we recognise today.

“We have to create a storybook about how  we take people from level two [5 GCSEs or equivalent] all the way to levels six and seven [bachelor’s or master’s degree equivalent]. And that could mean that individuals might find themselves going through three different apprenticeship programmes in order to develop the full set of skills that we need in industry,” he said.

The ICE has also expresed concern here, highlighting the need for these apprenticeships to fall under a recognised qualification such as EngTech.

It means this could all become very confusing, with a raft of different apprenticeships being developed by different companies and organisations – all leading to different qualifications. 

Which brings value to the idea mooted by City & Guilds in November last year. It suggested there be a UCAS-style body to administrate the apprenticeship application process. Its report Making Apprenticeships Work says that applying for the vocational positions should be more like the process of applying to go to university.

It suggests that colleges and employers post opportunities with a common deadline for applications. Offers can then be made for applicants to accept or reject and a “clearing” stage to fill final vacancies with remaining applicants.

The challenge is set, and there are sound ideas on how to respond. It is down to the industry to develop a vision and a delivery mechanism.

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