Apprenticeship is critical to SGR localisation, transition

Practical training aims at helping staff acquire operation skills, enhance those they already have.

In Summary
  • The benefits of apprenticeship cannot be overstated. For employers, it increases employee retention, strengthens the employer brand and enhances productivity.
  • Employees can earn while learning, receive recognised qualifications, gain real work experience and develop skills that improve employability.

In a world where technology and innovation is increasingly shaping the way we do business, any company worth its salt should put in place apprenticeship programmes that enable skills transfer from those nearing retirement to the younger generation. For starters, apprenticeship is a method in which trainees learn a craft or trade by hands-on experience while working with a skilled worker, usually under a written or implied agreement.

As the demand for skills in civil engineering, traffic management and digital technology continue to rise from employers, institutions of higher learning have stepped up efforts to ensure this is met. In England, for instance, there are now over 100 universities on the register of apprenticeship training providers, and the number of degree apprenticeship programmes has increased from 1,614 in 2016/2017 to 7,114 in the first four months of 2018/2019.

The top five degree apprenticeship standards are Chartered Manager, Digital and Technology Solutions Professional, Senior Leader, Chartered Surveyor and Registered Nurse, and the range of degree apprenticeships increased from 11 in 2016/2017 to 32 currently. Other countries whose institutions of higher learning have strong apprenticeship programmes are Australia, China and Germany.

Still, companies have also not been left behind in their quest to innovate and address skills gap. Leading international companies that have embraced apprenticeship programmes include CVS Health, Toyota and Mercedes Benz. Closer home, South African companies namely Eskom and SAB also offer apprenticeship training.

The benefits of apprenticeship cannot be overstated. For employers, it increases employee retention, strengthens the employer brand and enhances productivity. On the other hand, employees can earn while learning, receive recognised qualifications, gain real work experience and develop skills that improve employability.


It is noteworthy that apprenticeship programmes have largely been embraced in railway operations as they require a high degree of technical skills. Such programmes provide an opportunity to operate in an innovative workplace while utilising the latest technology to develop a skilled workforce and support citizens in gaining valuable, nationally recognised qualifications. In Kenya, staff of Africa Star Railway Operation Company (Afristar), the operator of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), receive on-the-job practical training in various railway specialties.

The practical training aims at helping staff to acquire operation skills and enhance those they already have. For instance, in the locomotive department, the assistant locomotive drivers and trainees learn to drive a train, while passenger transport staff learn how to operate the ticketing system and serve passengers. On the other hand, rolling stock staff learn how to prepare the trains and solve mechanical issues, like how to ensure the flow of air duct and to adjust wheels and alignment of other parts.

Afristar’s on-the-job training programme has been complemented by study tours to China. Based on the different training programmess offered in China, staff members have been exposed to various railway disciplines. Some have been very practical in nature, like the training in signal and communication, which includes modern railway commanding, signaling equipment and their application. Another programme has been on transport and integrated transport systems. Several others have been on operation management. These have been great eye-openers, serving the purpose of broadening the staff’s technical skills.

As part of the preparations to hand over SGR operations to Kenyans, Afristar has implemented a series of policies aimed at an elaborate skills transfer programme to ensure sustainability. For purposes of technical advancement, staff taking technical positions are grouped into trainee, preliminary technical level, intermediate to advanced, with strict and scientific advancement procedures. Staff also join the annually organised technical competitions, with the winners recognised and awarded every year.

They are selected to give lectures and offer demonstrations to other staff for reference. On staff promotion, around 240 staff are team leaders and supervisors at various positions, exerting their role in the management and assisting in the technical transfer process.

Currently, Afristar has 2,187 local employees. Majority of these are hired under the 123 railways specialties and are undergoing training and apprenticeship, all leading to certification. However, the time it takes before certification depends on the disciplines the staff are pursuing. It varies across Track, Signal & Communication, Locomotive, Rolling stock and Transport.

So far, the passenger transport team has reached 97% localisation, as they are able to work independently. Though the normal acquisition of a locomotive driver’s certificate in China takes between 5 to 7 years minimum, the tailor-made intensive training for Kenyans ensured that the first batch of 15 locomotive drivers was certified by Kenya Railways in May 2019, three years into operation. The second batch of 14 locomotive drivers was certified in early 2020.

When all is said and done, supporting employers with processes around apprenticeships, such as developing talent strategies based on labour market information, and engagement with institutions of higher learning remains crucial.

The writer is a Deputy Manager, Corporate Culture, Afristar

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