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December 22, 2009

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Rail industry conference- Skills shortage could affect rail’s future

British industry could find itself with major problems unless more is done to protect the skills that once made it a world leader.

That was the impassioned plea put across by Dr Pete Waterman OBE, the renowned record producer and chair of the London and North Western Heritage Railway Company, who said that unless young people were given the opportunity to gain ‘on the job’ experience, Britain may not have the skills in future to run an efficient, effective and well-maintained rail network.

Pete said it is important to get apprentices doing what they used to do, not sitting in classrooms, but gaining valuable experience working alongside experienced employees who could tell them the tricks of the trade. He has headed up a campaign for a new National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering, to be based in Crewe, which aims to teach new recruits some of the basic skills they’ll need to enter a career on the railways.

“The main thing the skills academy will do is deliver somebody who has worked in the industry for at least a year,” Pete explained. “You won’t have to teach them how to use a file or hammer.”

He went on: “Three years ago, I went to the government and said ‘you have to take training more seriously’. We have to look at this in a completely new way. We need to be brave, we have to look at what apprentices did originally. We need people to look at the big picture. We can only make real change if the industry thinks as one team.”

Pete is not alone in seeking to preserve specialist skills. Crossrail’s chairman, Terry Morgan, said his organisation is looking to see if it can open a centre of excellence for tunnelling skills, which is another area where expertise is being lost. “We’re talking to the likes of Thames Water and EDF Energy about it and hope to open an academy in 2010,” Terry said.

Pete warned, however, that there is little point in running apprenticeship schemes if there are no jobs for people afterwards: “We have to see skills as part of putting people back to work,” he commented. Pete said one of the benefits of apprenticeships is that they give young people who struggle at school renewed confidence: “Many kids leave school and can’t read and write. But they’re often the best learners. When they realise they do have a skill, it gives them self respect. I want more kids who can say ‘I did that’.”

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