Crossrail is Europe's largest construction project, a revolutionary infrastructure programme that aims to transform rail transport and cut journey times by creating 26 miles of new tunnels across London. Since work started in 2009 it has created or maintained employment for 15,000 people; and around 60,000 people are expected to work on Crossrail over the life of the project.

Plus, Crossrail currently employs over 350 apprentices. “From the outset we found that there was a shortage of talent in the labour market,” says Valerie Todd, Talent and Resources Director at Crossrail. “We wanted to do something to re-energise the skills base within tunnelling and underground construction particularly, but in rail engineering and infrastructure generally. It was always part of our plan to use Crossrail as a training ground, so we made it a requirement for our contractors to provide young people with opportunities to complete apprenticeships, and to complete work placements that may ultimately lead onto an apprenticeship role.” Crossrail also set up its own Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy, which opened in 2011.

New apprenticeships developed by Crossrail specifically for the project include tunnel operations, gantry crane operations, locomotive operations and spray concrete lining; while existing apprenticeships on offer include business administration, procurement, document administration, finance, HR, IT and accounting. Apprentices receive both training in a college environment and hands on application in the workplace, and are employed by Crossrail itself, or one of the programme's numerous partners and contractors.

The youngest apprentices have been aged 16 and 17, and tend to work in office or support roles; the oldest has been 35. Todd tells the story of one unemployed teenager who, after sitting around the house for months, was cajoled by his mother to apply to Crossrail. He was duly accepted on — and became enthused by — a pre-employment course, completed an apprenticeship in spray concrete lining, will be graduating this year and is expected to earn around £60,000.

“Our apprentices are committed to us, committed to the way we get things done and are a great asset to our organisation,” says Todd. “Plus we've found that the people who work with apprentices are very nurturing, very caring and want to bring these young people on. They have knowledge to impart and experiences to share. I'd commend the apprentices for everything they bring to the organisation, and also our contractors and their supply chain partners for seeing the value of apprenticeships.”

Young people have different learning styles, says Todd. She points out that one benefit of an apprenticeship is that trainees receive the practical application of what they have been taught at college. “Putting those skills into context in the workplace means that learning becomes embedded,” she says. “Apprenticeships give you very high level qualifications and all without student debt.”