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All aboard the skills train

College brings rail industry training to the depot, as cleaners are transformed into fitters, reports Joe Clancy

At its peak, there were nearly to 100 railway apprentices stood behind lathes in six workshops at a further education college close to a rail maintenance yard in east London.

Today there are less than a dozen operating in just one workshop, but that does not mean that the college's training scheme has hit the buffers.

In fact it is full steam ahead, because the college has just been awarded full Centre of Vocational Excellence status for training people the rail industry, a sign of its success.

Newham college is the first college in the country to be awarded full CoVE status by the Department for Education and Skills for training apprentices and engineers to keep our trains on time.

In the past three years training has become workplace-based rather than college-based. Newham has set up partnerships with railway companies to provide courses at depots across London. Courses have become much more "bespoke", tailored more directly to the needs of the individual rail companies.

The college was first approached in 2000 by Eurostar to run a training course based entirely at the company's depot on the other side of the capital at White City.

It meant the learners would not have to attend the college in Stratford, but would instead receive traditional classroom-based teaching on site, with individual tutorial sessions and assessments also taking place at the depot.

Since then this model has been introduced at the north London depot of Great North Eastern Railway, and at First Great Eastern at Ilford.

Mike Scott, Newham college's CoVE co-ordinator, said: "Overall we have about 50 non-traditional learners who are completing courses without ever attending the college. All work is site-based. All assessments and observations take place at depots to fit in with the shift patterns of the learners."

Part of the reason for the training transformation is the change in the make-up of the traditional trainee brought about by the shortage of school-leavers being attracted to engineering work, forcing rail companies to look to their own adult workforce to fill the skills gap.

Mr Scott explained: "Engineering is not seen as sexy enough for youngsters.

There is still the stigma of the old cloth cap and it is still seen as a dirty, heavy job.

"Money doesn't appear to be the problem. Even engineering companies who offer twice the wages of the rail companies are struggling to recruit young people.

"This year we had places for eight more young apprentices, but we were unable to attract them. One year we mounted a big advertising campaign in an area around one depot and did not get any response at all.

"One company sent a training officer into schools to seek recruits, and produced just three."

He said the rail companies' answer to the problem was to look towards their own adult unskilled and semi-skilled workers to train as engineers, turning cleaners into skilled fitters.

He added: "Companies have become more aware of the potential of their current workforce, providing them with the skills to progress within the company. This motivates staff, helps them to develop and gives them confidence in their ability."

It also gives unskilled workers the opportunity to double their salary.

Typically a cleaner with a rail company will earn pound;13,000 a year. By becoming semi-skilled with an NVQ2 qualification this can rise to pound;19,000. A skilled fitter with an NVQ3 qualification can earn pound;24,000 plus shift allowances and overtime.

Tom Boyle, Newham college's head of school, said: "Adults in the workforce now have the opportunity to get qualifications that they would never have had 30 years ago. We have had one cleaner who got his first qualification at the age of 52."

Newham's links with the rail industry go back more than 40 years when it began training courses for apprentices from the nearby traction and rolling-stock maintenance depot at Temple Mills. Its training has concentrated on train maintenance, but it is now planning to break out into other areas of railway operations. A signal maintenance course has already been introduced.

Chris Leadbeater, head of the faculty of technology, said he is expecting the college's links with the rail industry to grow, but by doing so it may need to diversify the range of training it offers.

"It is about us getting better at identifying a company's needs," he said.

"We need to move into areas like signalling, electrification, track maintenance, and real estate management, by which I mean walls, bridges, tunnels, and video cameras."

The college is convinced it has an important part to play in the industry's future. Mike Scott said: "The people we train will be playing a key role in rail safety and in making sure trains run on time."

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