Career focus: Network Rail apprenticeship scheme

There's more than one way to bag your dream job. Going straight to university is one route, but have you considered an apprenticeship?

That’s what Michael Groves did, choosing a rewarding path that’s given him on-the-job training and a rapid series of promotions – as well as the chance to complete a degree in the process.

Michael works for Network Rail, where he now leads the development of the company’s innovation strategy. 

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"I am constantly being challenged in my job, which is something that motivates me," he says. 

"There is no greater reward than seeing a project through to the end and knowing I played a vital role in it."

Back when he finished his A-levels in 2005, Michael was keen to find ways into engineering that didn't necessarily involve going to university. 

"The Network Rail apprenticeship scheme was advertised in a national newspaper and the opportunity was too great to miss," he says. 

Learning the ropes
Like all Network Rail apprentices, Michael spent his first year training alongside the Royal Navy at Europe’s largest engineering training facility at HMS Sultan in Hampshire. 

The trainees there are taught the technical skills required to work on the railway, as well as developing the ability to work as leaders and as part of a team. 

"Network Rail’s apprenticeship is unlike any other that I know of," says Michael. "You spend the first year away from home which gives you the opportunity to become independent."

Trainees are paid, too. Those in their first year earn £8,400, plus £1,150 once they successfully complete the year. Their accommodation and meals are paid for, as is their work clothing and safety equipment. 

After that first year, you spend two years undertaking on-the-job training at depots across the country, with trainees returning to HMS Sultan for additional courses and learning. The apprentices specialise in Track, Signalling, Telecoms, Overhead Line and Electrification and Plant. 

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"I was deployed into the delivery unit at Gloucester where I learnt with the Track Maintenance teams and in the technical office," says Michael.

"When you are placed into a local depot, you spend every day with experienced engineers and technicians for two years. The experience and knowledge I gained there will stay with me for the rest of my life."

And it’s not just experience that’s gained. These years are paid, too: £11,750 in the second year and £14,000 in the third.

Promotion path
Once Michael completed the apprenticeship scheme in May 2008, he was appointed as a Technical Officer. Just one year later, he was promoted to Senior Technical Officer.

"In that role, I was undertaking surveying work, implementing track designs, carrying out structure gauging, monitoring tight clearances and assisting in the management of track quality to name a few tasks."

At the same time as he earned his first promotion, Michael was also accepted onto the foundation year for the Railway Engineering degree course at Sheffield Hallam University. Having completed that course with a distinction, he’s now been invited back to top up this qualification to a Bachelor of Engineering degree.

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It’s a route that’s open to all apprentices, as Michelle Palin, Head of Apprentice Recruitment for Network Rail, explains.

"Beyond their apprenticeships, our best people can undertake a higher national certificate, a foundation degree and then a full degree in engineering, all without the debt of university," she says.

"They can earn while they learn and go as far as their aptitude, attitude and ambition can take them."

For Michael, his rise through the ranks continues.

"In my new role as Efficiencies and Innovation Programme Manager, I am leading the development of Network Rail’s innovation strategy on behalf of the route infrastructure maintenance director," he says.

"I am constantly being challenged in my job, which is something that motivates me. If it was easy, it wouldn't be half as enjoyable."

There are 230 places available on the next Network Rail’s advanced apprenticeship scheme. Network Rail recruits for depots across Britain, including Swindon, Reading, Basingstoke, Guildford, Woking, Wimbledon and Clapham.

To apply:

  • You need to have turned 17 by 31 August 2013. There is no upper age limit.
  • You need four GCSEs at grades A-C (four Scottish Standard 1-3), or equivalent. These have to include English, maths and science or engineering. A relevant BTEC/NVQ level 2 and above can replace science or engineering.

Find out more and apply for a Network Rail apprenticeship -