Rail skills agenda is stopped in its tracks

A consultation and review of the future skills agenda for rail is taking place after efforts to establish a sector skills council (SSC) for the industry have stalled.

The Centre for Rail Skills was launched in July 2003 as a membership body to support training and skills for the industry. It applied for SSC status, but failed to get a licence from the Sector Skills Development Agency earlier this year, and two of the biggest employers in rail, London Underground and Network Rail, subsequently withdrew their membership.

The reason for the split was down to key skills – specifically the inability to agree what they should be for rail, according to David Carrier, head of competence and training management for Network Rail. “The skills within the industry are very different – this is the heart of the problem,” he said.

“The industry is small in terms of the total number of employees, but the skills are very broad.”

London Underground and Network Rail already work closely on skills, and the Underground was instrumental in getting a new centre of vocational excellence for rail established in London.

Investing in people

“We’re very committed to investing in [our people],” said Iain Smith, the Underground’s head of engineering and technical skills. “Our record shows we’re ahead on national vocational qualifications.”

Smith also questions whether a sector skills council for the rail industry is even necessary as a brokering influence between providers and employers. “We don’t have an SSC,” he said. “Do we care? I don’t know that we do. We get along without them.”

Carrier notes that rail employers could easily fall under existing SSCs in construction, engineering, passenger transport and so forth.

But train-operating companies still support the idea of the Centre for Rail Skills as a single body representing the industry. “The point about the rail industry is that partnering is important,” said Mike Gooddie, HR director for Great Northeastern Railway and chair of the Association of Train Operating Companies’ HR directors’ forum: “It’s a relatively fragmented industry, but that’s no reason not to have one body representing the industry.”

The consultation and review is being conducted by consultants PKF. Overseeing the process is a steering group comprising the SSDA, the Centre for Rail Skills and existing SSCs such as the Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance and Skills for Logistics – as well as the Strategic Rail Authority, now in the process of winding down and handing over its remit to the Department for Transport.

London Underground and Network Rail asked to be on the steering group, but they were turned down. Iain Smith said: “If we’re not on the steering group, who knows what they’ll decide.”

The SSDA maintains the place for employers is consultation. “The key areas for an employer is to tell us what they want and what they need,” said SSDA development manager, Leah Swain. “I’d much rather capture their time through the consultation.”


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