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Mark Thurston: why apprentices are critical to the success of HS2

11 February 2022

As someone who started his career as an apprentice, Mark Thurston, CEO of HS2, talks about how investing in future talent is integral to the legacy of one of the UK's biggest projects.

Mark Thurston: why apprentices are critical to the success of HS2
At peak construction, HS2 will need around 30,000 people to design and build the major railway, which includes a commitment to 2,000 apprentices. Image courtesy of HS2

It’s no secret that our industry has faced a skills challenge for some time.

Despite a pipeline of major infrastructure projects over the last 10-20 years, we need to do more to truly inspire young people about the potential career opportunities and the value and importance of STEM subjects.

At HS2, we’re trying to change that.

We’re committed to making Britain’s new railway accessible to the communities it will serve, and that investment begins in schools, colleges, and communities along the route of the railway.

We want to inspire young people, and I truly believe the best way to achieve that is to create opportunities for the next generation to play a part in HS2’s delivery.

As someone who started their career as an apprentice, I know first-hand the value of investing in technical skills and qualifications, and the different career routes and opportunities this can open up.

Creating a lasting skills legacy

HS2’s aim is to achieve a lasting skills legacy and we’ll continue investing in future talent to ensure we achieve that.

At peak construction, we’ll need around 30,000 people to design and build HS2, which includes a commitment to 2,000 apprentices.

Our education programme is vital to leaving a skills legacy from building and designing the new railway and inspiring the next generation of workers in the infrastructure and engineering sectors.

Our education programmes raise awareness of the project and highlight the diversity of jobs and skills required to deliver major projects like HS2.

Dealing with a shortage of apprentices and STEM graduates

A shortage of apprentices and graduates from STEM subjects is a key challenge for nationally important infrastructure projects.

The HS2 programme provides the opportunity to inspire young people and begins to address this challenge.

Our work experience and education ambassador programmes are now well established, and in my nearly five years as CEO, we’re really seeing the value of that investment.

Young people we've met at the Skills Show (now WorldSkills UK) have joined us for work experience, while others have been inspired to apply and secure apprenticeships as a result of our schools engagement programme.

Providing work experience for all

Research suggests experiences of the workplace are particularly important for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t benefit from equality of opportunity.

With the challenge of Covid-19 over the past two years, we’ve had to adapt the way we provide opportunities to those that need it the most. With schools and workplaces closed, young people were at risk of missing out on work experience opportunities.

Throughout 2020-2021, we delivered three virtual work experience programmes, specifically targeting people from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Looking forward to 2022, we are continuing our programme of work experience, delivering a hybrid approach with a mix of virtual learning and site visits.

Again, our programmes will target disadvantaged and underrepresented groups such as young people with special educational needs and young adults.

The role of apprentices at HS2

This week, we confirmed that we’ve now welcomed 825 new apprentice starts on the project, showing impressive progress against our 2,000 target.

Considering it’s less than 18 months since main works construction started on phase one of the railway, and with work now also underway on the next two phases of the project, I’m confident that our ever-growing UK supply chain will support us in achieving our target.

We’ve come a long way in a short time, but we’re not complacent.

The scale, geography and multi-phase delivery of HS2 means that we’re able to offer a broad range of apprenticeships, with the opportunity to get involved in both the early planning and concept stages, right through to the highly skilled engineering and delivery activity.

Our apprenticeship roles on the project provide individuals with the opportunity to learn from the very best in the industry, gaining hands-on experience and working towards recognised qualifications.

Last year, we welcomed our very first tunnelling apprentices and this year, as a result of our partnership with the Society of Land Referencers, we’ve supported the creation of a brand-new apprentice standard in land referencing, which has led to 20 new apprentice vacancies in a field that is so vital to our industry.

A commitment to inclusivity and accessibility

One thing I am particularly proud of is our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion in all aspects of recruitment and employment to build a workforce that reflects the communities we serve.

Our application process for apprenticeships is designed with inclusivity and accessibility at its core, this being instrumental in recruiting a diverse cohort. Of our apprentice intake at HS2 Ltd in 2020/21, 41% were from BAME backgrounds and 38% were female.

Apprenticeships are just one part of our wider programme of education engagement, work experience and internships, but they play a fundamental part in our future talent programme.

In our support for National Apprenticeship Week, HS2 Ltd and our construction partners are actively recruiting for more than 80 apprentices to play their part in the delivery of Britain’s new railway.

Related links

Find out more about HS2’s jobs and skills programme.

Find out more about all careers in civil engineering.

  • Mark Thurston, former chief executive officer at HS2 Ltd