The next generation of rail engineers will have to be experts in high-speed rail, Mark Coleman explains what is being done to get them there

With the UK rail and engineering industries facing critical skills shortages at a time of major plans for investment and growth over the next few decades, businesses are being asked to help engineer the UK’s biggest industrial recruitment drive since the 20th Century.

The opportunity for new rail engineering talent is vast – at least 7,200 engineering and technical workers will be needed to work in high speed-rail in the UK by 2020. It is further estimated that there will be more than 100,000 job opportunities across Britain’s railways by 2027, with HS2 alone set to create 25,000 new jobs.

This provides a challenge, with an estimate that businesses in Britain will need around 203,000 new engineers every year until 2024. Right now, we’re falling short by around 49,000 engineers a year. The rail industry in particular faces even further skills shortages, with one in five rail engineers currently over the age of 55.

As you would expect from an industry that is preparing for such a fast-moving future, mechanisms to overcome these challenges are being put into place with major projects such as The National College for High Speed Rail. This is the largest of five national employer-led colleges that has been created by the Government to help British students develop world class skills. Demand for learner placements and apprenticeships at the college is growing, fuelled by the reputation it is gaining from its brand new, state-of-the-art learning facilities, as well as its strong strategic partnerships with high-profile rail industry employers.

As a specialist education and training institution, the National College for High Speed Rail is looking to attract a wealth of highly skilled individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds to help plug the growing engineering skills gap. It is gearing up to produce a new-generation of highly-skilled engineers, managers and technicians.

The first year

The college’s two campuses based in Doncaster and Birmingham opened in Autumn 2017 and its first cohort of learners and apprentices have already been upgrading their skillsets with the backing of more than thirty businesses who have committed members of their staff to share expertise with learners at the college. The college’s first full entry of learners are set to enrol this September, with numbers set to grow over the next few years, reaching capacity at 1,200 learners per year.

The support provided by businesses so far has included the donation of more than £9 million-worth of kit and equipment including two Eurostar power cars provided by Alstom, and 400 metres of track from British Steel. The college has also developed its own Industry Advisory Group, to share advice on the latest developments and ensure their practices reflect what is needed in training.

Support from the government, the Department for Education, the Department for Transport, the Skills Funding Agency, HS2, Birmingham City Council, Doncaster Council, Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP and the West Midlands Combined Authority has resulted in a total capital investment of £52million into the two new buildings.

But as the demand for apprenticeships continues to outstrip supply, leaders at the National College for High Speed Rail are appealing for more businesses to get on board.

New partnerships

Clair Mowbray, Chief Executive of NCHSR, said: ‘The National College for High Speed Rail is a gateway for learners to gain the skills that will be needed to take up a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

‘We are relying on business partnerships and a steady supply of apprenticeship opportunities with those businesses, to ensure the college can enable people across the country to acquire skills that will be needed to compete in the UK’s growing rail and engineering industries.’

Mrs Mowbray adds: ‘The learning experience at the National College for High Speed Rail is like no other on offer in Britain. Our learners engage and interact with fellow students and mentors using 4K touchscreen whiteboards, virtual and augmented reality headsets, and other digital learning aids.

‘This state-of-the-art learning experience is enhanced further still through training on cutting-edge real-life equipment which is being supplied by leading businesses in the sector.

‘With the ability to learn in a real work environment on a former Eurostar power car which is set within a dedicated workshop consisting of rail track, railway bogies and overhead land equipment, learners can combine traditional learning techniques with the very latest digital technologies.

‘The industry is changing quickly and we’re offering a learning experience that can adapt to those changes.’

Employers linked to the college provide support in a variety of ways; by offering placements and apprenticeships; providing mentors; offering visits to their sites and depots for college learners; donating equipment; delivering guest lectures and sharing expertise to give learners at the National College for High Speed Rail access to the very latest thinking in the industry. All of this activity and more is allowing industry businesses the opportunity to equip and shape their potential future employees.

A comprehensive approach

As the college offer develops over the next few years, there will be learning opportunities that span the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), in addition to specialist skills programmes and training. Courses will range from Level Three HE Diplomas in Engineering to Level Seven Masters Apprenticeship in Rail Engineering (Principal Engineer).

At present, the college is particularly looking to partner with and support more businesses through its delivery of Level Four Higher Apprenticeships in High Speed Rail and Infrastructure, and Level Five Apprenticeships in Operations and Departmental Management. These apprenticeship standards have both been set by an independent trailblazer group and have been approved by the Department for Education.

The apprenticeships offered by the college provide a unique route into the industry; one that develops skills relevant for today and readies people to work on high-speed rail. Attracting new young people into the industry is vital but through the training offered, support is also provided to those looking to retrain or up-skill.

Increasing workforce diversity

Compacting the exiting skills shortage, there is also a notable lack of diversity across the rail sector in particular. This is something the college will be working to address over the coming years. Currently women account for just nine per cent of the UK’s engineering workforce and the college is calling for further action to help tackle this issue and help attract more young female engineering talent into the industry.

In these early stages, the college’s efforts are already seeing success, with more than thirty per cent of applications coming from women.

The National College for High Speed Rail is targeting both young female and male school leavers as well as people looking to change their career and those looking to re-skill such as army re-settlers. It is keen to be recognised as the gateway to a once in a lifetime career opportunity to help create the future of the British rail network.

As Britain embarks on revolutionising the rail industry with high-speed rail, this is a unique opportunity to collaborate with and reap the rewards of being involved in an institution which is pioneering this incredible journey.

The National College for High Speed Rail heralds a new era in technical education and training and involving employers and businesses is pivotal to ensuring the UK has a workforce highly skilled enough to deliver HS2 and other major infrastructure projects.

British Steel described their partnership with the college as giving them, ‘a great sense of pride’, and has committed to developing its association during a new dawn for the rail industry.

Launching the National College for High Speed Rail from the Doncaster campus last October, former Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, emphasised the drive to transform technical education and develop the skills of the next generation and existing workforce.

The National College for High Speed Rail is set to take the industry lead on this, giving employers the opportunity to help solve the skills gap the UK faces in engineering, construction, manufacturing and design. A dilemma which Britain cannot afford to ignore as it bids to invest billions in modernising its rail network.

For more information about the National College for High Speed Rail visit