21st century rail apprenticeships: How to attract millennials

For National Apprenticeship Week, Dan Walker digs into how to attract millennials to the rail industry.

With the focus of the rail industry now on the ‘Digital Railway’, the reality of faster, better connected and more reliable trains is on the horizon. The industry is in a race to innovate and developing the state-of-the-art technology that will help to speed up the digitalisation of the railway. But with an ageing workforce, finding the skilled talent to develop and operate this new technology is a very real challenge. 

This is an issue that extends well beyond the rail industry. Almost every sector, from rail and engineering to healthcare and education, relies on getting access to digital talent to safeguard its future.

A parliamentary report commissioned last year revealed that 90% of all jobs in the UK require digital skills but the gap in terms of digital skills is costing the economy £63bn in lost GDP a year. Apprentices can and will play a key role in helping to address this gap and National Apprenticeship Week provides a great opportunity to highlight their importance. 

The diversity of the experience that apprenticeships offer young people is unparalleled and such schemes provide a fantastic means of cultivating the next generation of a digitally skilled workforce. They not only offer specialised, technical and professional training but also provide young people with the opportunity to learn as they earn.

Despite these tangible benefits, the stark reality is that not enough people are currently undertaking apprenticeships. So the question for those of us working in the sector now is: how should the industry encourage more young people to consider apprenticeships? And who should we be targeting?

The ongoing bias and changing perceptions

For a long time, apprenticeships have been seen as only for non-academics and people that want to take up traditional trades. This misperception is over-emphasised by teachers, schools, careers advisers, and parents, and inevitably means that too many young people believe that university is their only option for access to a career.

In reality, most apprenticeships require as high a level of academic knowledge as vocational skill, in some cases to degree-level and higher. The majority of apprentices develop technical, occupational, and professional competence – meaning they train, study, and complete assignments and exams with a training provider, but are also trained and assessed by their employer to be workplace-ready.  

Experience shows that apprenticeship programmes develop highly qualified individuals, with a strong work ethic and an innate understanding of the demands of the modern workplace.

The choice of apprenticeships now available means that there are opportunities across all major industries – from IT to media – at a range of levels, for people from all backgrounds.

Besides earning a salary and not incurring tuition fees, apprentices also benefit from learning how to navigate the work environment – something that those straight out of university often struggle with. Experience shows that apprenticeship programmes develop highly qualified individuals, with a strong work ethic and an innate understanding of the demands of the modern workplace. 

Addressing the gender gap

One of the most pressing issues facing the rail sector is a severe lack of diversity. We are seeing the industry’s gender gap widen as women continue to feel they are not equipped or suited for the type of physical, ‘dirty’ work the sector appears to demand.  

PwC estimates that the UK is missing out on up to £170bn worth of economic benefits by not having enough women in employment. The economic benefit is clear and diversity should no longer be a luxury or an add-on but should instead be a core focus of our recruitment process. 

While acknowledging there are jobs which require heavy-lifting, we must rise to the challenge of demonstrating the breadth of career options in rail and showcasing the extent to which the industry offers a broad variety of skilled career paths. This will also enable us to attract the candidates who are seeking the more digital technology-driven jobs.

Careers in STEM have never been as exciting as they are today – with the rapid changes in technology making the sector more innovative and dynamic than ever before. 

Rail – the innovation hotbed

Modern transport is increasingly adopting some of the most complex and sophisticated technology currently available. Shifting the mindset of those used to more traditional working practice can be hard and across the industry; it’s clear that those that have grown up with technology – the ‘digital natives’ – are the ones that are able to take this shift in their stride.   

Virtual reality, for example, is a key element of modern training in rail and harnesses a high-degree of learning technology to develop specialist skill. This takes advantage of millennials’ natural propensity to channel their understanding and affinity with technology into the rail sector.

Safeguarding the future

This is one of the most exciting times for our industry, and yet there is not enough skilled resource to address the rail industry’s project pipeline. It is more important now than ever that we recruit the right talent to safeguard the future. 

We have already seen a boost in apprenticeships over the past few years but there is still a long way to go in promoting the importance of these programmes in tackling the skills gap. National Apprenticeship Week is the perfect time to think about how we communicate the value of apprenticeships.

With government and industry strategy aligned, and with funding and new standards in place, now really is the time to deliver the full potential for what an apprenticeship scheme can be.


About the author

Dan Walker is Head of Apprenticeship Delivery, NTAR


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