Training to close the skills gap

The skills shortage within engineering is a problem for many companies in the industry. Atkins is just one company investing in the next generation.

Andre Blackwood, Atkins Assistant Telecommunications Engineer, at work.

It’s no secret that the UK rail industry is suffering from a skills shortage. The 2013 Skills & Demand in Industry survey conducted by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found that 50 per cent of the 400 organisations it interviewed are recruiting engineering staff and that transport is one of the sectors recruiting most actively. Many in the industry are feeling the pinch of this shortage with important infrastructure projects to deliver including HS2, Crossrail and the Great Western Electrification Programme.  

Bridging the gap

So how are engineering firms bridging the skills gap? Offering opportunities to apprentices and graduates is one option which has paid dividends to design, engineering and project management consultancy, Atkins. Last year the company welcomed over 400 graduates and apprentices to its businesses across the UK, which is one of its largest intakes ever. The company is also a member of ‘The 5% Club’ which is a campaign designed to boost the number of apprentices and graduates in the workforce.

Investing in the next generation is something that Atkins’ Rail business takes seriously. Its Rail Communications Systems (RCS) business has been running an apprenticeship scheme for four years now. Under the scheme, apprentices complete a Level 3 Certificate or Foundation degree in Electronic Engineering which provides them with basic engineering knowledge. On the job they get a wide range of experience from installing CCTV cameras to designing rail communications systems. The scheme has been approved by the IET which shows that it is providing apprentices with professional competence, while demonstrating a commitment to their development and progression. IET approval also means that Atkins’ apprentices will have a streamlined application process for gaining Engineering Technician (EngTech) status once they complete their training, providing them with more opportunities.

Scheme success

To date the scheme has introduced ten young people into the rail industry. Of these, four apprentices have completed their Level 3 Certificate with three out of the four now undertaking a foundation degree. Two apprentices have finished their foundation degree and five apprentices have achieved EngTech status. Philip Parker who is head of design for Atkins’ RCS business believes that the success of the scheme lies in giving apprentices meaningful work. “It’s important that apprentices are given challenging, interesting tasks that develop them as engineers,” he said. “When they are on site I want them to learn something. A lot of the work that I have done over the past few years is about educating our business on the value of apprentices.”

This work has paid off with Atkins’ apprentices finding real value in their training. As André Blackwood, trainee commissioning engineer commented: “This apprenticeship has provided me with a wide range of experience from onsite installation and commissioning through to design. I’ve now completed my foundation degree and have EngTech status which is great for my career. In the future I hope to become a chartered engineer, working for Atkins on large infrastructure projects abroad.”

Future graduate schemes

Like any growing business, there are plenty of opportunities available. This year Atkins’ rail business will be looking to employ over 40 graduates and a number of apprentices as well. The business usually looks for graduates who have completed a degree in Civil & Structural Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and other technical disciplines. Wider skills such as the ability to communicate effectively, work in a team and initiative are also taken into account.

There is an important role for apprentices and graduates to play in the rail industry. Douglas McCormick, managing director of Atkins’ rail business and Commissioner for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills said: “There is a significant skills shortage in the engineering sector and enthusing the next generation about career opportunities is going to be key to ensuring the UK produces world-class engineers and delivers world-class projects.” It appears that employers who invest in graduates and apprentices and ensure that they are given a well rounded learning experience will be doing their bit to plug the shortage of engineers in the UK.