National Apprenticeship Week: First railway engineering degree apprentices on the right track

The first cohort of students to take on a degree apprenticeship in railway engineering have begun their training. Feb 2024

For National Apprenticeship Week, we are highlighting the work the University of South Wales does to support the growing number of students who choose to work while at the same time as studying for a degree

The first cohort of students to take on a degree apprenticeship in railway engineering have begun their training.

Two of the major businesses involved in supporting the study pathway have also explained why they are involved in the groundbreaking new courses.

Approved by the Welsh Government and run by the University of South Wales (USW) in conjunction with Coleg y Cymoedd, the four-year Degree Apprenticeship in Railway Engineering gives apprentices operating in the rail sector the opportunity to gain a university-accredited engineering degree.

Having started in January, the apprenticeships then run annually from this September with students on the study pathways focusing on either civil and track electro- mechanical engineering, such as permanent way infrastructure; or electro-mechanical systems and electronics, supporting electrification and rolling stock maintenance. The students will study part of the course at the Coleg Y Cymoedd Nantgarw Campus and then the rest at USW, and, if successful, will gain a Bachelor of Sciences degree.

At the launch of the course, Louise Pennell, who is Associate Dean of Partnerships and Development in USW’s Faculty of Computing, Engineering, and Science, said it has been developed to meet the specific requirements of the railway industry across Wales and the UK, as projects such as the South Wales Metro are developed to address the need for sustainable and reliable public transport systems.

“Over the past few years we have worked with a variety of rail industry partners, Industry Wales, and the Welsh Government to address the need for a railway engineering education pathway in Wales, as previously there was no such qualification offered here,” Mrs Pennell said.

“After Industry Wales asked companies operating in the railway sector what knowledge, skills, and higher-level behaviours industry required from their employees and potential graduates, the pathway was put together and approved by the Welsh Government.

“At USW we have a sector-leading engineering department which has extensive expertise in developing work-based learning programmes in a variety of sectors, and are experts in managing degree apprenticeship across a number of specialisms.

“As we are leading on this degree apprenticeship, both employers and those taking the courses are guaranteed access to the most up-to-date knowledge and facilities available to the industry in Wales.”

Dr Francis Cowe, Director of FE Partnerships and Degree Apprenticeships, at USW said:

“This is a further example of Industry, Welsh Government, USW, and local Further Education Colleges working together in the region to meet the needs of industry and open up opportunities for local people to access well paid employment.”

Network Rail is one of the major partners involved in developing the course. A spokesman for the company, which owns, repairs, and develops railway infrastructure in Wales, England, and Scotland, said being involved is a major boost for the business.

“Network Rail became involved in the degree apprenticeship through its relationship with a local company already taking part in designing the scheme, and is keen to take advantage of a provision that specifically relates to our industry and supports career pathways,” they said.

“There are a number of benefits for Network Rail of being involved with the degree apprenticeship, such as students gaining relevant practical and theoretical knowledge and skills that can be translated back in to the workplace, offering them exposure to other areas of the railway they wouldn’t see on a day-to-day basis, the chance for them to become more rounded engineers, and the career progression and staff retention benefits on offer.

“Add to this the ongoing relationship with the degree apprenticeship providers, who will keep the course live and relevant to the industry, this will help to forge strong relationships and knowledge sharing across the sector, and develop engineers with cutting-edge skills who will continue to benefit the rail industry for many years to come.”

Pontypridd-based Protech Rail Engineering, which provides engineering and construction expertise to the UK rail industry, is a supporter of the degree apprenticeship. Protech’s Apprenticeship Manager Emma Giles explained why the company chose to support apprenticeships.

“We chose to engage with degree apprenticeship so we could help to develop industry leaders, bridging skills gaps in a niche but priority sector in Wales, and encouraging our talented employees to reach their full potential,” Mrs Giles said.

“An added benefit has been the ability for us to combine workplace training with study, so our employees can develop their expertise, earn relevant qualifications, and bring the benefits of their increased knowledge back to the business.

“Employees with knowledge and experience are hugely valuable to our business. We hope this apprenticeship will empower our employees to feel valued and to increase their business loyalty.”

Mrs Giles added that she would have no hesitation in recommending the scheme to other employers.

“The apprenticeship should see growth of fresh, diverse talent into the rail industry, striking a balance between work commitments and learning to advance both the employee and the business,” she said.

“Highly-skilled employees are one of the biggest assets any business can have, rail remains a priority sector which will face skills gaps as an imminent retirement cliff edge is reached.

“The higher/degree apprenticeships can provide a route into a skilled position that will bridge this gap and stretch and challenge each learner to reach their full potential, which will not just boost their own personal development but the developmental needs of the business too.”

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