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Preparing the next generation of skilled rail professionals

Clair Mowbray, Chief Executive of the UK’s National College for High Speed Rail, explains that as high-speed rail is vital to the UK’s development, it’s essential that the industry is nurturing the right skills for its delivery.

Preparing the next generation of skilled rail professionals

Slow journey times and ageing infrastructure have made the case for high-speed rail in the UK more and more compelling over recent years. However, there is much more at stake than a simple reduction in journey times.

The UK is known for having one of the most overcentralised economies in the world, held back further still because of its historically poor connections between and within some of its great towns and cities. High-speed rail will be fundamental in driving the shift change that is needed to address this issue.
HS2, which is now in its first phase of delivery, will improve north-south links to free up capacity for more regional (intracity) services throughout the North and Midlands. It will also be essential in unlocking the opportunity for better East-West connectivity in the North of England, via the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project.

With high-speed rail so fundamental to the UK’s development, it’s essential that we are nurturing the right skills for its delivery. And the skills needed for projects like HS2 and NPR should not be viewed in isolation. The skills challenge faced by the railway sector is common to the UK’s broader transport sector.
The latest figures published by the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce estimate that 41,000 people are needed to fill roles on the road network; 50,000 are needed in rail; and 180,000 people nationally are needed to deliver the Heathrow Expansion project. The nature of work in the transport sector is also changing at pace and there are further potential skills gaps, particularly at higher technical levels.

The skills gap is caused by several factors including poor diversity and an ageing workforce, changing demands and difficulties attracting people into engineering disciplines and STEM subjects. Yet the requirement for higher level skills is increasing because new roles are emerging. Developments in technology, a move towards digital transport systems and newer ways of working such as offsite and modular methods of construction and engineering, are all fuelling this demand.

Businesses working in transport-related disciplines – whether they are engineering specialists, construction companies, network facilitators or systems designers – all have an important role to play in addressing the skills shortage.

As an employer-led college supported by the government, The National College for High Speed Rail has been established to help the industry rise to this challenge. Our curriculum, which is based around Level 4 and 5 apprenticeships and full-time courses, expands to some discreet Level 3 provision, right through to Level 6 and short CPD courses, is industry-led and industry-focused, using the very best technology, facilities and teaching practice.

Our foundations are built on being truly industry responsive and we continue to invite a wide range of companies to inform our future direction. For the 2019-2020 academic year, we will be diversifying our college’s core offer, providing higher technical, world-class skills for high-speed rail and rail modernisation, and also encompassing developments in associated areas such as light-rail, metro and freight, smart mobility and digital transport systems.

As the recent ‘Talent 2050’ report by Barclays, LSBU, NATS and Pearson highlighted, a new approach to skills could help the industry move thinking away from the current ‘leaky pipeline’ to recruit from a ‘reservoir of talent’, which is ready to learn. We are proud to already be a part of this approach and we are encouraging businesses across the sector to join us on that journey.

Clair Mowbray was appointed Chief Executive of the National College for High Speed Rail in September 2016. Her involvement with the College started in 2014 when she joined HS2 Ltd to lead on its development. Since then she has been instrumental in taking the project from concept through to its current stage of development working across stakeholders to achieve buy-in and support for the project. Clair’s career has been varied working in both the public and private sector with roles including Management Consultant at PwC, Project Director at Tribal Education and running her own business. The common thread throughout has been working with organisations dedicated to supporting people through skills development. Her vast experience is an excellent platform for successfully implementing the National College, given its clear mandate to closely link skills development with the economy.

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