Raising the bar on training and standards... Thames Skills Academy

The TSA has brought together marine employers on the River Thames, to promote training and careers on the UK’s busiest inland waterway.

PLA skills academyFirst intake – members of the Thames Skills Academy’s 2017 Thames Apprenticeship Programme.

Pushing forward the importance of the River Thames for freight and passengers is one thing. Ensuring there is a marine workforce with the right skills to match and support that growth is the next. And there are other challenges – how to establish exactly what skills and training are required for handling and operating the tugs, barges and other vessels on the UK’s busiest inland waterway, and the big question: “Where are our future generations of river practitioners coming from?”

All of these elements add up to the unique strengths of the Thames Skills Academy (TSA), which has brought together marine employers on the river to develop and provide their training needs and promote career opportunities on the tidal Thames.

“We are a voice for the employers,” says TSA chief executive Katherine Riggs. “On the one hand you have the national regulator, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which identifies core training, safety and basic competency requirements. The MCA requires a master operating on the Thames to hold the boatmasters’ licence (BML) – that is a minimum. But many operators on the Thames agree that there is a sound rationale for increasing the wider levels of competence, specific to the challenges of the river.

“As a Group Training Association (GTA) able to speak on behalf of a wide range of employers working on the tidal Thames, we can have a significant influence and impact. It is a more effective approach than operators speaking out in twos, threes or as individuals. Where there is new legislation or a change in rules and regulations at regional or national level, the TSA employers now have a collective voice.”

Set up in 2016, the TSA is a member of GTA England, the national umbrella organisation of GTAs. The Thames Skills Academy currently has a membership which represents some 70% of those working afloat in the Port of London, and it is actively seeking new members.

November 2017 was a major milestone for the TSA, as 22 apprentices, aged between 16 and 45, embarked on the very first TSA-managed apprenticeship courses. Welcomed to their training courses by Paul Cadman, non-executive director of the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA), at the formal launch of the Thames Apprenticeship Programme, the group includes apprentices employed by Livett’s Group, City Cruises, MBNA Thames Clippers, Cory Riverside Energy, Thames Shipping and the Port of London Authority.

The 16 deck apprentices are working towards a Level 2 diploma in maritime studies and the BML, delivered by Red Ensign Training in conjunction with Eastleigh College, and the six engineering apprentices are working on a bespoke Level 2 marine engineering course delivered by South Essex College and, subsequently, a specialised route through to a Level 3 engineering qualification.

The launch event was attended by apprentices, their families, training providers and supporters, as well as TSA employer members and mentors allocated to the apprentices.

There were many notable achievements for the TSA during 2017, including...

As a member of the Maritime Skills Alliance, the TSA is actively contributing to the development, maintenance and improvement of vocational qualifications and standards in the inland waterways and wider UK maritime sector. The TSA’s proposals for an expanded framework of qualifications for tidal inland waterways were accepted by the MSA.

The TSA held its first National Apprenticeship Week, for more than 95 young people, promoting careers afloat and bringing potential apprentices together with marine employers. Later in the year, the TSA had its own stand at the Skills London event, where more than 100 young people signed up to receive details of the TSA’s 2018 National Apprentice Week event in March. “The Skills London event was very productive. Several young people already out of school and looking for work asked for their details to be circulated to our employer members,” says Katherine Riggs. “We were also able to establish links with a number of schools and colleges, through which we will be able to raise the profile of the sector and promote the range of job opportunities and careers available.”

The TSA’s Freight Working Group, established in 2016, continues to support the TSA’s freight operator members, including the marine contractors engaged on the Thames Tideway Tunnel project. A separate Passenger Working Group also supports passenger vessel operators, focusing on their specific training needs.

A pool of TSA ‘Endorsed Training Providers’ has been identified.

Some 66 training courses involving over 550 delegates were facilitated and delivered to employers during the year. The delivery programme continues as the TSA looks to develop more bespoke training in several areas to meet its members’ needs. Among these, a riverside personal safety course was developed and delivered to shore-based personnel working on the Tideway project and in other areas. The course is now formally recognised by the MCA.

Raising awareness of careers and job opportunities on the tidal Thames continues to be a major focus, says Katherine Riggs.

“One of the reasons that young people and their parents, schools and local communities are not aware of the career opportunities on the tideway is that employers are not shouting it from the rooftops,” she says. “We need to get across the message about the potential that there is – including the fact that working on the Thames could lead to a career in the wider maritime industries. Some of the operators may well be in competition with each other, but they face the same problems in recruitment and retention, diversity and equality. They recognise there are significant advantages in sitting down and working together as a collective. Through the TSA, they can promote a common message and collaborate on training – and that is a cultural shift in a very traditional industry.”

The TSA, she says, aims to raise the bar on skills and standards, and to give employers more choice in who delivers their training. Aside from basic safety and competence training, there are opportunities for employers to secure training that is more relevant to their particular needs, Riggs explains. “Except for the statutory training requirements, they don’t necessarily have to make do with a standard course which doesn’t in fact meet their needs. Where we have the opportunity, we are starting to develop training more relevant to the sector and the operating environment on the tidal Thames. Our new Thames Apprenticeship Programme is also crucial, and will deliver more rounded, better trained, experienced and qualified practitioners.”

PLA Thames training opportunitiesIn the spotlight - new Thames training opportunities

We are also supporting and facilitating a national employer Trailblazer Group that now has formal agreement from the IfA to develop a new national Boatmaster Licence Apprenticeship Standard that will draw down Government funding.”

The Thames Vision has clearly raised expectations on the river, she adds. “If the river, the operators, the port and the PLA are to meet that challenge, there will have to be a more coordinated approach to training needs, and standards will have to rise. The TSA is the vehicle through which employers can meet that challenge.”