5 May 2022

Apprentices in Rail: RailStaff March 2022

Sector Insights

This article was first published in RailStaff Issue 278, in the lead up to the Railtex 2022 Expo.

With the ongoing talent shortage and increasingly ineffective talent acquisition methods, how can we reinvigorate rail recruitment? The answer is apprentices. We caught up with Zach Howgill and Erin Holland, two apprentices in rail recruitment at Advanced Resource Managers (ARM).

Why did you choose an apprenticeship with ARM?

Zach: Faced with the choice of waiting two more years to get into the world of work, or getting stuck in immediately, an apprenticeship seemed like the obvious choice. Now I get to learn on the job, gaining invaluable experience and developing so many skills that you just can’t get through an A Level syllabus.

Erin: Having worked in recruitment previously (in fire and security) I found a distinct lack of support– no one would show me the ropes, and there was no structure to my training of any form. I was struggling to get my foot in the door for a job and so decided it was time for a change of scenery. With the shift over to ARM and their apprenticeship structure, I’ve had the opportunity to properly learn, to understand the industry in depth, and all while getting paid.

What attracted you to the recruitment industry, and why rail recruitment in particular?

Zach: I’m naturally very chatty. I genuinely enjoy talking to people, especially when I’m able to help them out as a result, so recruitment just felt like the right path to take. In terms of the rail sector, I honestly had little prior knowledge on the subject when I started, just a general interest and a level of understanding of its scale. After some research into the rail market, seeing just how exciting and dynamic it was, I wanted to learn more. I’ve been working in rail recruitment for just over a month and a half now, and it’s just confirmed I was right. There’s so much happening all the time in this industry, which keeps life interesting.

Erin: My background in recruitment helped with the decision, but I chose to join ARM and especially the rail team, due to the sheer potential for growth in this company and sector. Operating in such a massive industry means there are endless jobs, candidates, and clients to construct my own network and build my own professional development.

What has been the greatest challenge in recruiting for the rail sector?

Zach: The most challenging aspect of this role and sector, resulting from the ongoing skills shortage, is how difficult it is to retain candidate attention. You have to move so fast. The number of calls and emails sent out each day which don’t get a response, can be quite disheartening. But I have a great team to support me, and I know that I’m still learning.

Erin: We experienced the talent shortage first hand within rail recruitment. When I initially started at ARM it was just myself and Wayne on the team, and the learning curve was so steep. But now we’ve added five new members to the team, and everything is so much more manageable – I feel on top of everything again. I think the most challenging element can be client expectations. Most of the time I feel able and equipped to fit their requirements, but you do get the odd client looking for some sort of unicorn, and when they don’t receive this, they close the role. It’s so frustrating.

What have you gained through this apprenticeship?

Zach: This apprenticeship has boosted my confidence – not only in my ability to thrive in a full time work environment, but also in my communication skills. I now make so many phone calls to complete strangers at all hours of the day. My time management has also been completely overhauled -not that I had much of a choice in this job!

Erin: In my interview at ARM I was a nervous wreck – this is a massive office, full of new faces, and I was previously not the biggest fan of change. But through this experience I have well and truly moved out of my comfort zone, with the help of my colleagues, to the point where this feels like my second home. Where else could you develop confidence like that? I’ve also developed numerous skills, which via other routes may have been neglected, namely my adaptability – in recruitment two days are never the same.

Any advice for those considering an apprenticeship?

Zach: I would recommend a recruitment apprenticeship to anyone willing to work hard, willing to learn and looking to earn good money straight out of school. It is such a rewarding role, even though it can be difficult at times, but it is just about showing perseverance to keep going and push through.

Erin: I’m not going to sugar-coat it – this apprenticeship has not been easy, and I have had a few moments over the last nine months where I’ve genuinely considered giving up. But with the right support in place, there are a lot of fun elements to the job. Expanding my knowledge, pushing myself, and gaining fresh perspectives has been invaluable. Looking back now, as I reach the end of the apprenticeship, I’m so proud of how much I have achieved and so happy with the team I’ve been lucky enough to join.

The flip side

To find out what we stand to gain working with apprentices in rail and how best to support them, we spoke with Erin and Zach’s manager Wayne Smith.

What are your top tips for effectively supporting apprentices?

Wayne: The key is, perhaps predictably, to listen. By listening to your apprentices, learning about their strengths, worries, you ensure that you’re giving them the time, space, and tailored support they need to succeed. Apprenticeships take time – at least one day a week of work – but what they’re gaining through the combination of this structured learning and direct employment is invaluable. Allow them to prioritize their own development – this will result in the best outcome for everyone.

Another tip would be to facilitate a culture of questions, where knowledge-sharing is just par for the course. The nature of the office environment allows for people from all sorts of professions, expertise, and interests to interact on a day-to-day basis, and to learn from one another.

Finally, treat everyone like an adult. It seems obvious, but I think it’s fair to say there is a tendency to underestimate young people, despite their vast offering. Don’t hold them back. Get your apprentices involved at the deep end (with support of course).

Why should we be investing in apprentices? What can we learn from them?

Wayne: Apprentices have so much to offer any business: fresh perspectives, different insights, an injection of vibrancy to the office space! My team of apprentices is able to engage with a huge spectrum of individuals, capable of relating to different age groups and much more effective therefore at engaging them. They also bring such a range of skills, the nature of the apprenticeship path allowing for a much wider talent pool. I’ve learnt so much from the apprentices at ARM. As well as a newfound knowledge of Netflix and online shopping retailers, I’ve been fortunate enough to learn about different learning styles and how to adopt these in my daily life, and about new approaches to recruitment practice. I’m extremely proud of my team, and I definitely laugh more now than before they all began their apprenticeship journeys here at ARM.

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