Rail projects may be hanging on the Brexit precipice, but Network Rail continues to invest in its workforce, making more apprenticeships available and hiring those previously unemployed.
On 1 February this year, the government made a statement stressing its commitment to driving UK rail growth.
The then secretary of state for business, innovation and skills Sajid Javid claimed the opportunities in the rail industry were vast, and that a strong rail sector supply chain was vital for future productivity.
But, since the vote to leave the EU, the government has gone eerily quiet.
The shock referendum result has left the rail industry on tenderhooks. The sector is awaiting confirmation on whether projects such as Crossrail 2, HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) will pan out as originally proposed or will be scaled back because of costs.
“There are a lot of unknowns in the market at the moment,” says Keltbray infrastructure and rail managing director Phil Price.
“Pre-Brexit, we were pretty confident about where we were going, but right now we’re not. With HS2, there’s talk of budget overspends and the client is under a lot of pressure, and that creates a concern about how you invest and when you invest.
“We’re unsure whether the new government is committed to these large-scale, upcoming projects. And to service those projects there’s a lot of investment needed.”
In this uncertain market, recruitment is a challenge. “There are a lot of questions around recruitment: what type of skills and capabilities do you need, on what projects, and also when do you put your strategies into place?” Mr Price adds. “We need to ask ourselves, have we created enough capability to develop against those big programmes? That’s the main concern.”
“We’re unsure whether the new government is committed to these large-scale, upcoming projects”
Phil Price, Keltbray
Network Rail is gearing up in an effort to avoid being left without the necessary workforce to carry out upcoming works.
Earlier this month, it announced it will be recruiting 140 new apprentices to start training in March 2017. The three-year scheme will now offer 300 places for trainees to earn while they learn.
According to Network Rail, since its launch in 2005, more than 2,000 people have joined its apprenticeship scheme. These include school and college leavers as well as those that were unhappy with their jobs elsewhere, and chose to go back into training to secure a more stable, long-term career.
Network Rail is currently modernising the Great Western route as part of its greater National Electrification Programme (NEP), which is set to revolutionise the railways and bring cross-country electrification to Wales for the first time.
Keltbray has been engaged as a strategic delivery partner to ABC Electrification as part of its works on the NEP.
“We have 70-80 employees working on the project at the moment, and we would expect that to increase towards 150-200 depending on how it peaks and how we manage the programme in terms of the demands that come,” Mr Price says.
“There are some very deprived areas in the country and we have a responsibility to address that”
Phil Price, Keltbray
Network Rail seeks to ensure that projects create jobs and apprenticeships for local people, including young people and those previously unemployed.
There are apprenticeships in track, signalling, electrification and plant, telecoms, and overhead line, which equip successful candidates with the skills they need to transform the rail network. This ethos is also adopted by suppliers such as Keltbray.
The contractor is currently training apprentices in south Wales for Network Rail’s electrification project. When the trainee lineworkers have completed their initial six-week accredited intense course, they will be assigned a mentor to ensure safety and the further development of their skills.
Mr Price explains that many of the workers have been made redundant from the power industry and have transferrable skills that allows Keltbray to train a core quickly and efficiently.
“We will be looking at how we deploy that in the south Wales area,” Mr Price says. “There are some very deprived areas in the country and we have a responsibility to address that.
“We should be looking at how we can provide real opportunities to a local community because it’s good business, it’s good for the individuals taking the money back to the local area,” he adds.
“It’s good for people to see those opportunities, and we have an accountability to do that as ultimately this is UK plc money; We have to make sure we’re supporting the communities whenever we can.”