Clair Mowbray
The National College for High Speed Rail, Doncaster

Published: 24th July 2017


The National College for High Speed Rail in Doncaster is well on its way to opening its doors to thousands of new trainee engineers in September 2017, and creating hundreds of jobs within the region. At the helm of the College is Chief Executive Clair Mowbray who, with her wealth of experience in supporting people through skills development, is more than
up to the challenge.

Clair took some time to speak to UP magazine about the challenges of steering such a high profile project, how the College will affect the region, and being a female Chief Executive in a sector stereotypically dominated by men.

The college will train thousands of new engineers, who are needed to deliver billions of pounds worth of rail contracts over the coming decades, including the new HS2 high speed rail line. The successful Centre for Rail Engineering and Technical Expertise (CREATE) bid, coordinated by Doncaster Council, involved a range of private sector businesses and was supported by the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership.


With the construction of the National College for High Speed Rail well under way, can you give us an overview of the project?

The National College for High Speed Rail is focused on providing higher technical training to develop skills for, and in the high speed rail sector. 

Whilst we are all about developing skills this is also about providing people with opportunities to change their lives and be part of a growing, diverse and exciting industry. With £88bn of investment due in the rail sector over the coming years there has never been a greater breadth of opportunity and need to have people with the right skills entering the workforce.

Our learners will start at the age of 18. This is for those leaving full-time education and deciding on the next step to take. We will also be supporting adults to reskill into the rail industry and working with businesses to upskill their existing workforce. 


As the Chief Executive, what is your vision for the NCHSR? 

My vision for the college is to pioneer new ways of teaching, to create excellence in what we deliver and to work in partnership with a diverse set of stakeholders to train local people to have world class skills.

I want the college to be the ‘go-to’ place for employers to access the talent they need for their workforce.


What impact do you think the College will have on the region? 

We are very proud to have a campus in Doncaster, surrounded by businesses that work within and on the edge of the rail industry. 

The impact on the region will be:

  • Giving a unique learning experience that will lead directly into the jobs that high speed rail will bring
  • To provide new and exciting opportunities that inspire people in the region to want            to come and learn with us
  • To put Sheffield City Region on the map for providing the future talent of the high speed rail industry
  • Attracting new businesses into the area because they can see that the skilled workers are available, and that they can continue to develop their staff for the future 
  • Attracting new people into the area to live here as students,
    but to remain here after their studies with us to take advantage of the jobs that will be here
  • Ultimately all of these factors will contribute to growing the
    regional economy.

What have been the biggest challenges so far in setting up the College? 

This is the first ‘greenfield’ college to be set up in England for over 20 years and to achieve an industry-focused learning offer that challenges how education is normally delivered. We have had many challenges, but every challenge is also an opportunity. 

We have really benefitted from how forward-thinking Doncaster Council is, and they have been supported of us from day one.  


What originally attracted you to the position of Chief Executive at the College? 

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create something new for the rail sector. It will also lead the way in how technical training is delivered. It is an exciting project leading to tangible, long-lasting change. I couldn’t help but be attracted to the position. I’ve worked on the project since 2014 and I’m passionate about it.


Can you please talk us through your experience, and how you feel your background has equipped you to step in to the role? 

My career has been characterised by working with organisations dedicated to supporting people through skills development. It has been focused around bringing together economic need and skills demand with the supply of education. My time at the Learning and Skills Council and when I was working in the Government and Public Sector Advisory Team at PWC are particularly relevant.

I also think the fact that I took a non-traditional route through education moving between academic and vocational routes has made me appreciate that there isn’t a one size fits all approach to education. It is about helping individuals find the path that is right and interests them. The options available to young people and those in employment to develop skills has increased over the last 5 years. We need to support people to understand what those options are and how they can benefit from them.


How do you think the role will evolve once the College opens its doors? 

We are very much in start-up phase at the moment tackling a lot of the issues new organisations face. Our horizon is focused on September 2017. When the doors open we will shift our thinking to the future and fulfilling our ambition. My role will be taking forward our strategic direction to ensure we grow, evolve and maintain being at the forefront
of skills training for employers and individuals.


Becoming the Chief Executive of such a high profile project must come with its challenges, can you discuss these in more detail?

The level of expectation on the project is great and I understand that we only get one chance. We are also developing the college in an environment where there is a lot of scrutiny. There is a balancing act to do to ensure we can move forward at the pace needed and satisfy the needs of our stakeholders. My approach to this is to have a clear plan so that we have line of sight on what needs to be achieved and to remind ourselves what we have achieved already over a short period of time. The level of support and commitment to establish the College and to start welcoming learners is fantastic. We will continue to build on this as we go through the next ten months to our opening.


The role of women in the engineering, rail and manufacturing sectors has been a hot topic recently, do you feel any extra pressure to succeed in your role because you are a woman in a stereotypically male environment? 

Yes, I want to succeed so that others can see what this industry is about and we can change the narrative about rail as a career choice as something at the cutting edge of technology. I also feel a responsibility to challenge how things are done to break down artificial barriers to people entering the rail industry. I’m excited that I can champion diversity and offer inclusive opportunities. And I feel at the forefront of change in this sector.


It is widely documented that there is a widening skills gap in the engineering, rail and manufacturing sectors, what will the College do to help close that gap?

While there is an overall skills gap, it is particularly marked at Level 4 and above, and this is our focus as this is where you start to nurture the higher technical skills that the sector is going to need in the future. We will be offering Higher Apprenticeships and HNC–equivalent qualifications that are targeted at 18 year olds and those who are already in employment who want upskilling or re-skilling into a new industry area. The skills we will develop focus on digital technologies, advanced construction and high-tech engineering.

 By September 2022 we plan to have over 1,200 students graduating into the sector with the technical and employability skills needed to move straight into jobs.


Do you think that, with a female Chief Executive at the helm, the College could help encourage more young women to train in the rail sector?

Absolutely, embracing diversity to bring change is one of our key priorities. I want young women to see that by working in the rail sector you are influencing the passenger experience through design, technology and the environment. But you also get the chance to problem solve, work in a team and have the potential for worldwide travel with your job.