There is an awful lot going on in rail at the moment, perhaps more than in most sectors, but this might be our ‘cometh the hour, cometh the industry’ moment in skills training, says Barry Smith of the National Skills Academy for Rail

Febrile was the word of 2019. I lost count of the number of times political pundits picked febrile as the adjective of choice to describe the atmosphere around any Brexit-related discussion. This year, of course, the word of 2020 is ‘unprecedented’. No doubt we all have concerns about what the future holds when ‘febrile’ meets ‘unprecedented’.

Navigating through this in Learning and Development or training will be dependent on words that give us more of a sense of connectivity rather than distance, support and empowerment rather than isolation or reactivity. Words that capture our ability to do something in a world where we can feel too much is being done to us, just now.

So, I’ve been thinking about ‘efficacy’; the impact of what we do, and ‘agency’; a different type of ‘taking back control’. I had thought about ‘opportunity’ but that doesn’t feel right. It is always difficult to use a word like opportunity just now. In the same way that admitting that actually working from home, not having to commute, and being able to spend more time with the family is a bonus, but a bonus tinged a sense of guilt for feeling this way, given everything.

Efficacy in learning and development is an interesting measure. So often we give into temptation and pass responsibility for the measurement of our impact (the efficacy of what we do) to others. Often our focus in learning and development or skills training delivery is towards OFSTED, relying on them to tell us how effective our provision is. OFSTED does have a vital role in inspecting and reporting on the quality of the provision associated with public funding, and then communicating this.

However, OFSTED wouldn’t claim to ‘own’ quality, never mind be the definitive word on it. OFSTED does recognise it when it sees it and uses their framework to underpin and add reliability and transparency to its judgements. Their goal is to look at training provision and see how it measures up against their framework, and the latest iteration of the framework is a powerful process focused statement of the need to embed and be measured against the plan, do, review cycle (OFSTED’s intent, implementation, and impact taxonomy).

Wherever I’ve seen outstanding practice, validated by OFSTED, more often than not it is from employer providers and other training providers that have their own clear vision of quality, embodied in practice and locked into the pursuit of how best to meet all their trainees’ learning needs. This is backed up by clear measurement of where they are succeeding and where there are having less of an impact.

Over the course of the summer, I had several video-chats with a range of rail and infrastructure employers from up and down the various supply chains. All were concerned about the paucity of opportunities for young people that are likely to be part of the short to medium term working environment. Within this are those with additional challenges that could make things doubly challenging. So, what about ‘agency’ as the next word? In a world where it feels like there is a lot being done to us at the moment, it is worthwhile reflecting on where we have agency and can feel empowered or enabled to help and support others; where we can make a difference.

As employers, one area where we have agency and can make a difference is in how we respond to the government’s support package to help us all through the current conditions. The Government’s Plan for Jobs includes a £111 million investment to triple the number of traineeships available in 2020/21. The traineeship has been relatively unloved as a training programme. This may be partly because it has been lost in competing messages, or unsure about its role in relation to other things or even potentially stalled by some of the designed-in or funding constraints.

However, some recent changes may well peak a renewed interest in programme and perhaps we need to be much more invested in this as a focus within a company strategy for new entrant skills development, and as a way to help out the wider push on skills.

Traineeships now also come with a new employer incentive of £1,000 of additional support over and above what currently exists to help employers to offer new traineeship work placements and support with the costs in setting up their offer during the 2020/21 academic year. The target group for traineeships in 2020 to 2021 will be young people who are not currently in employment and have little work experience, but who are focused on work or the prospect of it; are age 16 to 24 and qualified up to and including Level 3 prior attainment (so, up to a 2 A Level standard of achievement or vocational equivalent). That means having access to a large, diverse, latent talent pool. I wonder if there is an opportunity here to use traineeships as a part of our apprenticeship recruitment strategy, or to run alongside our apprenticeship induction programmes.

Given that, when it comes to engineering roles at least, we tend to have significant induction periods where safety training takes place and safety credentials are achieved, is this an opportunity to make greater use of Traineeships with only modest changes to what we do anyway? For those trainees not retained as apprentices, just think of the start you can give them in securing employment elsewhere or in becoming attractive as prospects for the employers in the wider sector or in your supply chain to pick up.

For employers interested in helping those at risk of long-term unemployment take a look at the Kickstart Scheme designed to try to stimulate hundreds of thousands of high quality six-month work opportunities aimed at those aged 16-24 who are on Universal Credit. Government funding now available for each placement will cover one hundred per cent of the relevant National Minimum Wage for 25 hours a week plus the associated employer National Insurance contributions and employer minimum automatic enrolment contributions.

Then there are apprenticeships. The Government has introduced a new payment of £2,000 to employers in England for each new apprentice hire aged under 25, and a £1,500 payment for each new apprentice they hire aged 25 and over, from 1 August 2020 to 31 January 2021. These payments will be in addition to the existing £1,000 payment the government already provides for new 16 to 18 year-old apprentices, and those aged under 25 with an Education, Health and Care Plan – where that applies. This is over and above the funding put in place to support apprentice training.

The rail sector employers have come together to design an array of apprenticeship standards for rail engineering, train drivers and passenger transport personnel and are now intent on learning the lessons of early implementation, measuring the impact made and using this insight to produce a refreshed suite of apprenticeships that will, when ready, provide a coherent provision across rail engineering from level 2 (GCSE equivalent) to level 7 (Post-graduate equivalent). Key here will be an eye on emerging skills gaps and skills need, mindful of the Levy pressures and focused on the business need.

We have embraced apprenticeships as a sector but we do need to get a little more excited about them as an opportunity and make sure that up and down the supply chain they are designed in a way that can be used as a central pillar in training, skills and workforce planning strategies.

This is the opportunity to revisit the structure, content and overall design of the rail apprenticeships, looking at:

  • What does an apprenticeship in each occupational area (likely to start in 2021/22 and last for five years), look like? I would suggest that it probably doesn’t look like the way it has always looked, not these days. Future proofing now means thinking about future skills needs and thinking about resilience in training delivery and assessment.
  • What are the lessons that need to be learned? We need to think about take-up, attrition rates and the reasons behind these; employer usage; achievement rates; the claims that we want to make about successful apprentices; optimal duration and workable models for delivery and assessment.

What about efficacy and agency, together. Well, for the bigger employers how about when handling the Apprenticeship Levy. This is the charge made by the government on employers with a payroll of more than £3 million and is at a rate of 0.5 per cent of their total pay bill. It’s a kind of hypothecated tax for funding apprenticeships.

Using the Apprentice Levy is a means to a workforce planning end. A secondary focus should then be on helping others that will inevitably be in a position to return the favour. So, if there is a Levy surplus, after skills development needs have been addressed, there then is supporting workforce planning in your supply chain. This makes the Levy both a strategic and tactical tool to address skills gaps and to quality of support you receive from others. Since April 2019, levy-paying employers can transfer a maximum amount of 25% of their annual funds. They can make transfers from their apprenticeship account to as many employers as they choose. Transferred funds can be used to pay for the training and assessment cost of the apprenticeships agreed with the receiving employer.

The common denominator in all the ‘big’ messages and calls to action from Government, whether it be about ‘bouncing back’ or ‘levelling up’ is infrastructure. Right in the middle of infrastructure is the importance of rail as an enabling force. These government supported skills programmes can be ways to enable rail to contribute to the delivery of these big intentions. In doing so, efficacy and agency will be key.