Educating the next generation of railway workers

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To encourage young people to pursue a career in rail, educational charity The Talent Foundry has started a programme with Network Rail. Frankie Youd talks to Cate Smith, head of programmes at The Talent Foundry to find out more.


eciding a career path is a daunting journey for young adults today, especially when it feels as though there are endless possibilities. Although schools, colleges, and other educational facilities offer support and guidance when it comes to deciding a path, sometimes external knowledge can be the inspiration an individual needs.

Encouraging young people to pursue and show interest in a career in rail is a key talking point for the industry. From college apprenticeships to school presentations, the industry is continuing to strive towards inspiring the next generation to get on board with the rail industry.

To support this journey, education charity The Talent Foundry – whose mission is to increase social mobility by assisting disadvantaged young individuals to develop life skills – has partnered with Network Rail, completing a pilot programme designed to inspire young people to get into rail, as well as to teach them invaluable, transferrable life skills.

Creatively titled ‘Track to the Future’, the programme aims to inspire and educate young adults on the way the rail sector works, which roles are available for them, and more.

Aerial view of the derailment. Image: UK Government

Cate Smith, head of programmes at The Talent Foundry. Credit: The Talent Foundry.

Cate Smith, head of programmes at The Talent Foundry. Credit: The Talent Foundry.

Frankie Youd:  Could you provide me with a little bit of background on The Talent Foundry?

Cate Smith: We are an independent education charity that helps disadvantaged young people discover what they are amazing at and prepares them for the world of work. The Talent Foundry – previously known as The Transformation Trust – was set up in 2009 by our chief executive, Amy Leonard MBE.

We were initially set up as a grant-giving organisation, with the core aim of providing fully funded extra-curricular activities for school students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The aim was to provide these students with opportunities similar to those experienced and enjoyed by their peers from more affluent schools.

In 2011, we made the transition from being a grant-giving organisation to a service delivery organisation. We developed an operating model of 'design, deliver, and evaluate', creating bespoke employability programmes and delivering these in partnership with corporate partners. In 2011, we established our amazing ‘Rock Assembly’ event, which for many of the students we work with, is a real highlight of their year.

One in five candidates turn down job interviews or offers due to travel inaccessibility.

How did the partnership with Network Rail come about?

We are always on the lookout for more organisations to partner with, and I reached out to the lead capability and development manager at Network Rail to see if they would be interested in doing something with us. When she said yes, we jumped at the chance to work with such a successful and reputable organisation as Network Rail.

Everyone at The Talent Foundry was delighted to work with Network Rail on the pilot ‘Track to the Future’ programme. We know Network Rail is as passionate as we are about ensuring disadvantaged young people can access a range of opportunities to get them thinking about their future.

Today’s railway represents 200 years of engineering innovation and determination. Network Rail is the 21st century chapter in this astounding story and they want to encourage more young people, especially girls and those from ethnic minorities, to jump onboard!

What are the main aims of ‘Track to the Future’?

The aim is for students taking part in the ‘Track to the Future’ programme to gain a unique insight into the work of Network Rail, by focusing on either project management or the data and technological side of the industry.

Mentors from Network Rail support participating students through four interactive sessions exploring the rail industry.

The goal is for students to develop key transferable skills, such as innovation and creativity, while also learning about key competencies such as accountability, collaboration, and responding to challenging situations.

We of course also hope that it will encourage students, who might not have considered it otherwise, to think about pursuing a career in the rail sector.

Credit: The Talent Foundry.

When did the pilot of the course take place? How was it received?

The pilot took place in the autumn term of 2021, so between September and December. Four schools took part in the pilot programme: Lord Grey Academy, The Adeyfield Academy, King Edwards VI Handsworth Wood Girls’ Academy, and Harborne Academy, with 80 students participating in total.

98% of students either strongly agreed or agreed that they have a clearer understanding of their own skills and attributes. 97% of students either strongly agreed or agreed that they are more confident in applying their skills in different situations in a workplace. 100% of teachers rated the programme either excellent or good!

The pilot was really well received, the student feedback we have collected has been very positive and has included the following:

I feel this programme has really made me consider what I want to do in the future and actually realise there is a need for women from ethnic backgrounds to be represented at the top level of business.”

I gained a better insight of Network Rail and the careers available in the company.”

I rated the programme as excellent because I learned and perfected a lot of skills that will help me in the future such as an increase in my confidence to speak in front of an audience.”

We’re really looking forward to expanding the programme with Network Rail – into different regions of the country too, which is exciting!

Do you think that courses such as this will increase the uptake of young individuals who want to get involved with the railway industry?

I hope so! Everything that we do at The Talent Foundry is aimed at encouraging young people to think about what they want to do in the future and then helping them get there.

It’s often difficult to imagine what different jobs and industries might be like, so programmes like ‘Track to the Future’ are invaluable, as they allow disadvantaged young people an inside view into a profession whilst helping them develop essential employability skills.

The fact that the programme teaches students about the different careers possible within the rail industry and that, where possible, they get to visit the Quadrant office in Milton Keynes or Baskerville House in Birmingham, to gain a unique insight of the workplace in action, should stoke their enthusiasm.

I know one participant even commented, when shown to the executive room where directors discuss projects, to save her seat and she’d be back there later on!

All image credit: Wabtec