Stepping up to meet the infrastructure apprenticeship challenge

The government has set out its stated ambition to create 3M apprenticeships by the end of the current parliament. Crossrail chairman Terry Morgan is tasked with driving a new strategy to boost apprenticeship levels across the UK’s transportation sector.

The UK government is unequivocal – the UK economy is being held back by poor levels of productivity compared to large parts of our global competitors largely due to the historic underinvestment in skills and training across all sectors.

Not least in the infrastructure sector where few can ignore the increasing pressure on resources and the challenge of meeting a welcome growing pipeline of economy driving investment in new assets and the renewal of existing networks across transport, energy, water and communications.

A key element of the solution, says the government, is greater focus on and investment in vocational training across the whole of the UK’s workforce.

The ambition to drive culture change into industry through the creation of 3M apprenticeship posts by 2020 was reinforced by Prime Minister David Cameron at the CBI conference last month. And as confirmed by George Osborne in his recent Spending Review, it is underpinned by a 0.5% levy on business payrolls over £3M.

Crossrail chairman Terry Morgan, having already overseen the delivery of over 500 new apprenticeships on the Crossrail project, is at the heart of delivering this ambition across the UK transportation infrastructure sector.

Having already launched the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) in Ilford, the National Rail Academy in Northampton and now as chair of both the High Speed Rail National College and Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, he is aware of both the challenges and the opportunities.

Morgan’s first task is the set out a new transport and infrastructure skills strategy to set out how the sector should:

  • deliver on its ambition for 30,000 apprenticeships in roads and rail over the 5 years to 2020, working together with supply chain partners
  • ensure the right mix of apprenticeships are on offer, including many at higher levels with training in new technologies
  • explore upskilling the existing workforce to meet new challenges
  • encourage greater diversity in the workforce, including attracting more women into engineering
  • develop a co-ordinated national network of transport infrastructure skills colleges to train the transport workers of the future

Key to Morgan’s plan is the creation of the new National College for High Speed Rail to springboard off the massive HS2 project and create up to 2000 new skilled apprentices from two new sites in Birmingham and Doncaster each year. Former First Group director John Evans was appointed chief executive last month.

And having seen the apprenticeship levy set out in the latest spending review alongside plans and funding to underpin both the HS2 project and the Northern Powerhouse programme, Morgan is ready to press ahead.

Interview by Antony Oliver

The Government’s ambition around apprenticeships is clearly welcome. But is it realistic?

In the lifetime of this administration the government wants to create 3M apprenticeships. I think that is equivalent to every school leaver between now and 2020 becoming an apprentice and clearly that isn’t going to happen. So [to meet this target] we have to redefine what this meant by an apprenticeship. I can see an individual, for example, having more than one apprenticeship to reflect advancement through different stages of their career. That would be right and proper.

What is realistically achievable in transportation by 2020?

Certainly the strategy is to create a mechanism to deliver 30,000 apprentices in the lifetime of this government. What that means to me is a three-fold increase inside the transportation sector.

Having seen how hard it has been to create 480 apprentices on Crossrail, how do you get to 30,000 apprentices?

We have achieved a huge amount on Crossrail, but we can always do more. On HS2 they have a much bigger ambition – as does Network Rail, Highways England and TfL. There is a huge amount of potential. Then, of course, there are the marine and aviation sectors. But it is a stretching target and while it is difficult to imagine now how will we get there, if government is serious about its 3M apprentices, and infrastructure wants is seen as a vehicle for investment going forwards, then we have to step up.

Where are the quick wins?

By 2017/8 we can put in place two brand new colleges capable to turning out 1000 apprentice each a year. We are confident that we can get the numbers. The support is there. But we must also use procurement and provided clients build [skills development] into prequalification then there is no question it is a fair requirement under EU legislation and so there is nothing to stop the private sector also putting these obligations in place.

The skills levy was confirmed by the Chancellor in the recent Spending Review – will that help your strategy.

The apprenticehsip levy clearly shows the government is looking at both ends of the equation – they want apprentices but they have to find a way to pay for it. And in truth I don’t know yet know all the answers – the question is still how will the levy be administered? The language that I hear is that it is going to be based on vouchers and employer led. Part of the debate is whether you should base the levy on headcount or the value of contracts – I am very sceptical of a headcount based levy because it penalises those companies who do pay as you earn as opposed to those companies who act as an agency and don’t directly employ people themselves. 

The new National College for High Speed Rail is central to delivering the required increase in skills – are you on track?

It has been delayed as we should have been given the green light three months ago. But we have now taken on a new chief executive and [following the recent spending review] it is now firmly part of the story about changing the profile of government spending away from overhead to value added spend on infrastructure. We have concept designs for two colleges – in Birmingham and Doncaster - and when open in 2017 these two colleges with have the capability of turning out 1000 students a year.

How will this National College operate?

My ambition is to have two centres of excellence – Birmingham predominantly working around digital technology and Doncaster around heavy engineering – with a hub and spoke model to drive skills between the two locations. But of course if there is already a regional centre of excellence why would we want to replicate it? Take Northampton, which has its National Academy for Rail or TUCA in East London, why would we want to replicate what they are doing? But you can move the core curriculum. Also we’re not planning to do entry point apprenticeships and will still look to further education college to do that work, allowing employers to then step in at level 4 and upwards.

Will your strategy be limited to just road and rail?

When you talk about transportation you have to work out what is going on around skills strategies. This for me is much more around a national network of transportation specialists. So in theory I have the four sectors – road, rail, marine and aviation - to report on. And in truth some of this stuff is quite generic, such as using procurement power to drive skills

What have you learnt from Crossrail about building and apprenticeship network?

Primarily that it will never happen naturally. It is a very brave project manager that will yellow card a contractor who is on time and hitting cost profile just because they haven’t hit their apprenticeship numbers. So we set up a contractual obligation. But second we also built a skills academy to help drive those skills. And third we have held the supply chain to account to demonstrate that they are meeting their obligations.

Has it made a difference on the project?

I think it definitely has. Could we do better? Certainly. One in five of apprentice programmes nationally employs someone defined as a NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training). On Crossrail it is two in five.  That is because we have a skills academy in quite a deprived area but we have also had to work hard at it. Our supply chain has done a great job finding people. We are doing a lot through Young Crossrail [schools outreach programme] because you are only going to get more apprentices if you increase the number of potential candidates and that means getting to youngsters while they are still at school.

There is already huge focus on boosting the numbers of young people entering the infrastructure sector. What will make your strategy different?

Correct. There are just too many initiatives and it is one of the things we are looking at. We have to coordinate them much better. The challenge is that everyone thinks that their particular programme is very precious and, of course, it is so important that programmes are championed by individuals. But the question is how do we get that enthusiasm that is currently seen around relatively small programme to build around something bigger.

How do you do that?

We have three months to do the strategy. We have to get to the big organisations, such as Engineering UK and the engineering institutions to build on the work already underway. We must ask what more can we do to ensure that we are not replicating things that are better done by one organisation. There has to be a better joined up approach. That said, when people say that they are already doing it, I generally don’t believe them. Nothing will change my mind that we would not have had more than 500 apprentices on Crossrail if we hadn’t made it one of the legacy stories of Crossrail.

How will HS2 help build on the Crossrail legacy?

Certainly HS2 will give us a world class railway but it needs to be more than that. Through the work that we have done on Crossrail we now have people with skillsets that were not considered possible five or six years ago. We now have a group of ex-apprentices earning good money as a consequence of the programme.

When you look at other countries and other sectors, who is tackling the apprentice issue best right now?

Nobody has got it perfectly sorted but if you ask who is doing the best, you have only got to go to Germany and some other European countries to see this really happening and see where they have got this linkage right and the correct combination of public private engagement. Across the sectors I think that the aeronautical and automotive industries are good – I would struggle beyond that. We are looking at best practice - what works and what doesn’t - and trying to learn from what we have done. I have always said that at Crossrail we took what was done at ODA and asked if they did it again what would they do differently.

What does success look like to you?

Success will be an agreement around an agenda for upskilling the UK workforce to meet the new challenges of infrastructure, and a commitment from the supply chain to actually do something different. That means at the same time we have to put in the physical assets to enable those who want to be trained to be able to be trained in the right way. Which is why the centres of excellence that are coming are very exciting.