The National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure (NCATI)’s relaunch as part of the University of Birmingham group signals new leadership, new strategies, and new opportunities for tackling the sector’s skills gap

It’s a really exciting time to work in rail. Railway projects are booming, and with sustainability now at the top of decision-makers’ agendas, significant investment in rail is likely to continue over the coming decades. This means that there is already a high demand for skilled workers trained in the specific details of the railway sector and the complex nature of railway systems. Central to NCATI’s mission is making people outside of the sector aware of this demand and attracting them into the sector to help address it – and with the University of Birmingham now at its helm, the College is better placed than ever before to take on the challenge.

Guaranteeing quality
After all, the University of Birmingham is known across the world for the high quality of its teaching, consistently ranking amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Not only that, but in the specific area of rail, the University is one of only two higher education providers in the UK offering an undergraduate railway degree, and one of three offering a postgraduate programme in rail engineering. With over 550 students registered onto their rail programmes in the UK and Singapore, it is by far the largest provider of Level 6 and Level 7 academic qualifications in rail, offering additional and specialised progression routes for those interested in the sector or those who want to upskill.

The University is demonstrably committed to investing in rail, recognising the sector’s skills gap and also having the expertise and resources to confront it head-on. Since being incorporated into the University of Birmingham group in April 2021, NCATI has already benefited hugely from this new collaboration, drawing upon the University’s rail expertise in the form of shared lecturers and curriculum development. Learners will also benefit: with the University’s track record of high-calibre delivery and a results-driven approach, students can be confident they are being trained by the best, in the skills needed now and into the future. This renewed focus on quality and improved learner outcomes within NCATI is essential to attracting the thousands of talented engineers needed by the sector over the next decade.

Providing apprenticeship support
In addition to attracting new people into the industry, NCATI is also dedicated to inspiring those already within the sector to help gear up their organisation’s skills and talent pipelines. This means working closely with rail employers to upskill their current employees, as well as investing in and taking on new apprentices. Apprenticeships are core to NCATI’s training offer: combining alternating periods at the workplace and in a training institution, they are ideally placed to provide young people with an entry point into a career in rail as well as to upskill an organisation’s existing workforce, thus supplying rail companies with a steady, long-term pipeline of skilled workers.

To ensure sufficient supply of the right skills to the sector, apprenticeships are developed in accordance with a standard, in which rail employers are able to integrate their views on the required competencies and skills for certain occupations. This ensures that apprenticeships are always closely aligned to the broader needs of industry, which is imperative in a sector that is constantly diversifying and requiring different skillsets. While the rail sector has been thoroughly engaged in the development of industry-specific apprenticeship standards, in order for us to meet current ambitious plans for growth and innovation, we need to boost the uptake of apprenticeships across rail companies, and urgently.

One of the most common obstacles to employer uptake of apprenticeships is capacity, or lack thereof – be it capacity for understanding which apprenticeship is the right fit, or capacity for onboarding new starters. Choosing to outsource training to a dedicated education provider like NCATI removes a significant portion of this administrative burden: we not only deliver off-the-job training, but also now provide a wholesale support service for each apprentice and their employer, right from the very beginning.

NCATI is putting this apprenticeship support service front and centre of its offer, and this is reflected in the makeup of its new team. Speaking about the College’s renewed emphasis on employer
relationships and engagement, Principal and CEO Ian Fitzpatrick said,

‘We see apprenticeships as a three-way partnership between the College, our employer partners, and our learners, and now have the people to prove it. Since our relaunch last year, we have devoted a lot of time to building up a robust and responsive Business Development function, with each member of the team ready to support our employer partners every step of the way, from understanding how apprenticeships work and how to make the most of their levy, to providing regular and tailored updates on their apprentices’ progress while studying with us.’

Diversifying our offer

Regular engagement with employer partners is not only intrinsic to NCATI’s apprenticeship service, but is also vital when developing the training itself. NCATI’s ultimate goal is to deliver skilled
professionals to the rail sector, but without listening to our partners in industry, how can we know we’re training people in the right skills? That is why we are continuing to work with industry to develop our curriculum, with our most recent efforts working with the Society of Land Referencers to create the brand-new Level 4 Land Referencer apprenticeship standard demonstrating the mutually beneficial relationship that arises from employers and education providers working together.

We are always looking to forge new partnerships in the area of apprenticeships, and invite you to please get in touch if there is something we provide that you would like to recruit apprentices to, or if there is something we don’t currently provide but you would be interested in running to address a particular skills gap in your area. For instance, the apprenticeship training offered by NCATI has historically started at Level 4 and ended at Level 6, but that is about to change. Having listened to our partners in industry, we recognise there are skills gaps within rail that need filling at lower and higher levels than the current provision, something the University of Birmingham have already responded to with their rollout last month of the brand new Level 7 Geotechnical Engineering degree apprenticeship. NCATI is also committed to diversifying and extending its apprenticeship provision, and hopes to run training from Levels 3 to 7 in the near future.

The College is also exploring different training avenues outside of and in addition to the traditional apprenticeship track, including skills academies and bootcamps – all with a view to providing the sector with as many routes into rail as possible.

Pledging to tackle the skills gap
Under its new leadership, NCATI now gets a second chance to forge successful partnerships with organisations across the rail sector, and to make sure that these partnerships help provide the skilled workforce of the future with the right equipment, the right courses, and the right career opportunities.

To this end, the College has developed a Skills Pledge, in which we invite organisations across the sector to engage with us and discuss how best we can support each other in providing skilled
employees to the sector, be it through apprenticeship recruitment, mentoring, or recognition towards contractor obligations (for example HS2’s Skills, Employment and Education outputs).

If you’re interested in engaging with us or finding out more about the work we do, please get in touch – we’re always happy to help, and would really welcome your support in addressing the sector’s skills challenges.

You can find out more about the National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure by getting in touch via the contact information below.

Tel: 0330 120 0375