Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 06 May 2009

The Way Forward for Apprenticeships

6 May 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Ms Sue Ramsey (Chairperson)
Mr Robin Newton (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Attwood
Mr Paul Butler
Rev Dr Robert Coulter
Mr Alex Easton
Mr David Hilditch
Mr William Irwin
Ms Anna Lo
Mr David McClarty
Mrs Claire McGill

Witnesses:

Mr Joseph Doyle ) Apprentice Bricklayer
Mr Stewart Emmet ) Polymers Apprentice
Mr David McCluskey ) Apprentice at Cahill Motor Engineering (NI)
Miss Jenny McGeown ) Apprentice at Translink

The Chairperson (Ms S Ramsey):

I want to put on record my thanks to John D’Arcy for arranging this morning’s useful briefing. Throughout our discussions on Training for Success and apprenticeships, we have repeatedly said that that we want to talk to people who are at the coalface of the programme. It is useful for the Committee to hear at first hand about the issues, whether in a positive or negative context, from you as participants in the programme. Rather than talking for much longer, I will hand over to you to introduce yourselves, after which I will open the meeting to questions and answers. Thank you for taking the time to come here today.

Mr Stuart Emmet (Polymers Apprentice):

I am Stuart Emmet, and I am on a polymers apprenticeship course.

Mr David McCluskey (Apprentice at Cahill Motor Engineering (NI)):

I am David McCluskey, and I am on the level 3 heavy motor vehicle programme. I am doing NVQ level 2, after which I will move on to the level 3 technical diploma.

Miss Jenny McGeown (Apprentice at Translink):

I am Jenny McGeown, and I work for Northern Ireland Railways, which is part of Translink. I am studying heavy vehicle maintenance and repair at the Northern Regional College.

Mr Joseph Doyle (Apprentice Bricklayer):

I am Joe Doyle, and I am a level 3 bricklayer. I am studying for an NVQ level 3 at Belfast Metropolitan College.

The Chairperson:

I am Sue Ramsey, and I am the Chairperson of this Committee. I am keen to hear evidence from you today, because it is useful to get a human perspective on some of the programmes that we talk about. I will ask some questions, and then I will open the session up to other members. Please answer the questions if you feel that you can. If you do not have the answer to a question, just say so. Feel free to make any suggestions or recommendations about the programmes that you are involved in. We will only get things right with help and advice from people like you.

Careers guidance and advice in school is one issue that has been raised in our inquiry. I trained as a chef, so I went through an apprenticeship, but I did not receive much guidance about apprenticeships at school. Did you receive much guidance when you were at secondary school before you decided to take up an apprenticeship programme?

Mr Doyle:

Not really, to be honest. I left school early to work with my father because the job was there. I was happy to do that. However, my school did not provide much advice about how to look for a job. It was all about being at school, going home, doing homework and turning up the next day.

Miss McGeown:

It was the same for me. My school discouraged us from taking up apprenticeships. I attended a grammar school that encouraged us to stay on in sixth year and do A levels, and that was not for me.

The Chairperson:

Were you made to feel excluded because you chose to go down the apprenticeship route?

Miss McGeown:

Being at a grammar school meant that we were encouraged to do A levels. It is not that I felt excluded; when I decided not to stay, that was it. The school forgot about me and concentrated on the students who stayed on.

Mr McCluskey:

The situation was the same for me. I did not receive much advice about what to do, apprenticeship-wise. It was something that I wanted to do, so I made my own way.

Mr Emmet:

I left school 11 years ago.

The Chairperson:

You do not look it.

Mr Emmet:

Thank you very much.

I was in the same situation. My school did not provide any advice about apprenticeships. I have had two jobs since leaving school. I have come a long way in the second job, as a polymers apprentice, in the nine months that the course has been running. I cannot fault the course in any way, except that I could do with having a few extra hours each week. Between work and day release there are not enough hours in the day to do the work in the tech and the coursework that is required, especially as I do not have Internet access. I have to travel from home to the tech in Bangor to do research for my assignments.

The Chairperson:

That is a useful point. I know that you are all on different schemes, but have you any ideas about how your apprenticeship programmes could be improved?

Mr Doyle:

I could do with more work. The recession has hit bricklaying big time. Many building projects were started, but workers have been sacked halfway through because there is no money to keep those projects going. That is obviously a big concern for bricklayers, because if there is no work, there is no wage, and people will end up on the buroo.

Miss McGeown:

The only thing that I can say about the heavy-vehicle course is that it is not very relevant to trains, which I work with everyday. Therefore, I am doing two separate things; I am doing my work, which is all about trains, and it is only slightly relevant to what I am studying in tech to get my certificates. Obviously, there is not much that you can do about that.

Mr McCluskey:

I cannot think of any improvements at the moment.

The Chairperson:

Before I invite Committee members to ask questions, I want to ask about encouraging more young women to get involved in science and engineering apprenticeships. Do not assume that the woman will answer my question. Do you have any ideas or suggestions about how we might encourage more young women to take up apprenticeships?

Mr Doyle:

I do not know — probably, advertise it as much as you can.

Miss McGeown:

As a young woman enrolled in an apprenticeship, nothing encouraged me to do it because I am female; it was just a personal choice. There is not a lot that you can do about that — it is down to personal choice. I did an engineering NVQ before I started my apprenticeship, and there were two other females in that class who completed the course.

Mr McCluskey:

It is about advertising — trying to get rid of the stereotype.

Mr Emmet:

Put women in your advertisements. Do not put men in them: only women. That would attract women more. There seem to be more men than women in all advertisements.

Mr Doyle:

No girl wants to sit in a class with a load of fellas.

The Chairperson:

It depends how good looking the fellas are. [Laughter.]

Mr Doyle:

That is it.

Miss McGovern:

It is not that good. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

Do you agree that we do not hold up as models of good practice people who are involved in apprenticeships of any sort? We do not advertise and write up in lights what people have achieved through apprenticeships. Do you think that there is a lack of encouragement in that respect?

Mr Doyle:

Aye; probably in all courses, not just the one that I am doing. I have a lot of friends who have done courses and have qualified, but they have not got anything out of it. More needs to be done for everyone who passes a course.

The Chairperson:

We are producing some of the top chefs, bricklayers and plumbers, but we do not seem to have an avenue to promote that type of achievement, even through advertisements. Do you think that more work should be done to promote apprenticeships?

Mr Doyle:

Aye, because a lot of things are going to waste that should not.

Miss McGeown:

I know what he means. People who stay on at school and do A levels, and maybe go on to university, are more highly thought of than people who leave school at 16 with a couple of GCSEs, go to the tech, work hard and get a well-paid trade or job. You are still looked down on, because you are just a tradesperson and do not have A levels or a degree.

The Chairperson:

That is still quite common.

Mr McCluskey:

I am going through a level 2 programme, and I was over in England at the UK skills finals. You need to try to give people a picture of how far they can go if they take up the programme.

Mr Newton:

I join the Chairperson in welcoming the young people to the Committee. I am particularly keen on apprenticeships and on enhancing the status of the engineer or the craftsperson in society. To underpin the success of the economy, we need very skilled people at all levels. Joseph, you mentioned your friends who were made redundant, what was their experience of being made redundant? Stewart, you said that you are travelling to tech in Bangor; do you have any contact with the polymer unit at Queen’s University Belfast?

Mr Emmet:

Yes.

Mr Newton:

I will ask all my questions, and then you can respond to them. The Committee visited the polymer processing research centre at Queen’s University and was very impressed by it. Jenny, you said that the programme that you are studying is not directly related to the work that you do, but I presume that it is as close as it can be as an academic or vocational qualification in Northern Ireland. What could be included in the course to make it more relevant to your work experience? Translink is a large company, which must take on apprentice engineers every year.

Mr Doyle:

What was the question again?

Mr Newton:

I asked about apprentices being made redundant.

Mr Doyle:

A couple of guys who hang about with me have done apprenticeships in bricklaying, joinery and other trades, even sports studies. When they qualified, they tried to get jobs, but they were unable to do so because of the recession. However, even before the recession, companies did not want to take apprentices on. They had no time for them. When they did take them on, they just had them running around the site doing the dirty work.

Mr Newton:

Are you treated as though as you are cheap labour?

Mr Doyle:

Yes, more or less. Apprentices have to serve their time with well-paid bricklayers, but they end up doing the hard labour, instead of the work that they should be doing. That should not be happening.

Mr Emmet:

I have been on a level 1 polymer-processing course at Queen’s University, which provided basic training for injection moulding. To be honest, I do not rate the course. It was not very good, and it was not well explained. It was a week-long course, but it was crammed into two days. At the end of those two days, we were meant to sit an exam, but it did not happen. The course was not well explained; it was thrown together. It could do with a larger injection-moulding side and a larger extrusion side, as well as other aspects.

Mr Newton:

So it was not a great success?

Mr Emmet:

No, it was not.

Miss McGeown:

You mentioned that Translink is a large company, which must take on a number of apprentices. That is true for bus depots, but apprenticeships in rail engineering are minimal. In recent years, Translink has taken on four apprentices every two or three years, which is a small number. I understand that apprentices cannot do much in college, because a train cannot fit into a tech, but some of the tasks that we are doing as part of our technical certificate have no relevance whatsoever. It might be better to change some of the jobs so that they involve more engine work, rather than learning how to steer a train, because the job does not entail steering a train.

The Chairperson:

It is useful for the Committee to hear that information. With regard to the point that Joseph made about jobs, through the Programme for Government, there are ideas in the pipeline in the public sector. That is why we are keen to hold this inquiry. If public-sector contracts are being developed, it is useful to ensure that apprenticeships are included before the projects are even up and running. There is no point in spending money in the public sector if there are no apprenticeships. I take on board the point that you are making.

The key issue around Training for Success, based on the Audit Office report on Jobskills, is the exploitation of young people, and that should not happen again. We are also keen to take on board the fact that there are a lot of small and medium-sized businesses here, so we need to get that right. Some trainees in joinery or bricklaying may be with only one or two people. It is necessary to achieve a balance by ensuring that the craftspeople get their jobs done while training people on the job. A common-sense approach is needed. I take on board the frustration of those people who have probably trained and retrained, but find that there are no jobs at the end of the process.

Although you may be nervous speaking here, it is useful for us to hear about your experiences first-hand. David Hilditch has personal experience — though not as an apprentice — of some of the issues that are involved.

Mr Hilditch:

You are very welcome. Following on from Robin Newton’s question, you indicated that you had friends who had completed their apprenticeships and could not find work. Do you have any friends who were paid off, perhaps halfway through their apprenticeships, without completing them? How do they feel that they were treated?

Mr Doyle:

A friend of mine is a fully qualified bricklayer. He served his time in the tech, but he was paid off because of the recession.

Mr Hilditch:

Do you have any friends who did not even get the opportunity to complete their apprenticeships?

Mr Doyle:

No.

Ms Lo:

Thank you very much for coming. It was very good of you to come and talk to us. How are you treated when you are at work as an apprentice? How relevant is your course in relation to your current jobs and the qualifications at the end of your apprenticeships?

Mr Doyle:

I am treated all right because I work with my father. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

It is as well you said that — this is being recorded.

Ms Lo:

You mentioned doing the dirty work. Are you given opportunities to learn from your work?

Mr Doyle:

Yes. I have had the opportunity to learn a lot of stuff from my work. The people who I know are hard workers. They put the time in, but they do not get treated properly. When it comes to the wages at the end of the week, they do not get the money that they want or think that they deserve because of the work that they do. I do not know whether that is because there is not much money about or because people are being greedy.

Ms Lo:

We have heard before that carpenters, for example, who are under subcontract, work for the day to hang 35 doors, and they get paid for those 35 doors. They do not have time to train apprentices or show them how to do things. Do you all find that you are left aside to watch, or are you given the chance to do hands-on work?

Mr McCluskey:

I get a good chance to work. I work with someone, or else I work on my own, and another person checks what I do. We also get a lot of training through work. We get sent across to England to be trained specifically on different topics.

Miss McGeown:

I am very well treated as an apprentice. Translink looks after its apprentices. It makes sure that apprentices work with fully qualified tradespeople. However, those tradespeople sit back and let the apprentice do the work rather than work while the apprentice watches.

Ms Lo:

Is it recognised that those tradespeople supervise apprentices? Are they given time to give you time to learn?

Miss McGeown:

Yes. We move around different sections of our workshop and do different types of jobs. Whichever job we do, the company recognises that an apprentice worker is in that section and that they will need a bit more time and things like that.

Mr Emmet:

I am very lucky, because I am very well trained in work and at tech. If I have any questions about work, all I have to do is ask, and there are a number of people, ranging from machinery operators to the managing director, who will help me. I go to tech one day a week, and I cannot fault any of my teachers. They have been trained, and they are now training us. If I have a question, even when I am at work, or if I need extra tuition, all I have to do is lift the phone and call any of my teachers. They will give me an answer to the best of their ability.

Mr Doyle:

I am in the same boat. We have the phone numbers for our teachers; any time we need to have a word with them, we can call.

Ms Lo:

Is what you learn at college relevant to your work? Jenny, you said that it is perhaps not very relevant for you at the moment, but what about the others?

Mr McCluskey:

The course that I am on is exactly what I need to be doing for my work area. It will give me all the relevant qualifications that I need to go further when I finish my apprenticeship.

Mr Emmet:

The job that I do is injection moulding, and I do a polymers course. It teaches you how plastic is made using hydrogen atoms, oil, and coal — the whole process, from the big bang right up until plastic is made.

Ms Lo:

We have four very happy apprentices.

Mr Easton:

Thank you for coming. You all seem happy, so my question will be easy for you to answer. Has your time as an apprentice been a positive or a negative experience?

Mr Doyle:

It has definitely been a positive experience.

The Chairperson:

You are looking for a pay rise from your Dad. [Laughter.]

Mr Doyle:

No way! I am lucky to get my wage on a Friday.

It has definitely been a positive experience. If I had not had the opportunity to do what I am doing, I would probably be unemployed.

Miss McGeown;

I feel the same; without the apprenticeship, I would most likely be unemployed. School was not really my thing, so staying on to get A Levels was not for me. I could not be happier than where I am now. As far as I am concerned, I have one of the country’s very good jobs. Translink is known throughout the country, and I am happy with my job and with tech. My course includes an online programme called CDX. If there is anything that I am not sure about when I am at home, I can access my own online account. That will show me a video, which will take me through, point by point, exactly what I have to do. I am never stuck for anything.

Mr McCluskey:

Like Jenny, I am happy with the experience. The course was the only thing that I wanted to do when I left school. I am definitely glad that I have had the opportunity to go as far as I have.

Mr Emmet:

Could you repeat the question?

Mr Easton:

Has your apprenticeship been a positive or a negative experience?

Mr Emmet:

It has been a positive experience, and it helps in my job. As this is the first year of my course, I am still learning. I will probably only get the real benefits of the course next year.

The Chairperson:

I know the answer to the question that I am going to ask, because I know some people who are involved in apprenticeships. On the days that you have to attend tech, what is the overall attendance? Some people find it easy to get up at 6.00 am and go out onto a building site, yet on the day that they have to attend tech, they cannot get out of bed.

Mr Doyle:

That is true. I know people like that.

Our class seems to be dead on. Everyone is there every week, and everyone is eager to learn and to get stuck in. I would rather be in tech than lying in bed. I am an early riser, and I want to give it a go

Miss McGeown:

I have to be honest; I would prefer to be in work than in tech. However, when I am in tech, I get my head down. As I said, through the online course, I can get stuck in at home as well as at tech. There are a lot of benefits.

Mr McCluskey:

It would be the same overall, because the class is full 99% of the time. The only exception is when someone is sick or has been called in to work.

Mr Emmet:

The attendance level for my class is between 95% and 100%. The only absences are when people are away on courses or are sick and are, therefore, unable to attend. The only reason that people are late for classes is heavy traffic.

Mr Doyle:

People think that we have taken the easy option by going to the tech.

Miss McGeown:

They think that it is a day off work.

Mr Doyle:

As a bricklayer, it is good for me to go to tech. Otherwise, I could be working on a site and building a big, straight wall all day. By going to tech one day a week, I can use the workshop to build different things, such as arches, corners and curved walls. Those are handy skills for me to have.

The Chairperson:

Do you agree that you have to be self-motivated too?

Mr Doyle:

At the end of the day, everything requires self-motivation, even getting up in the morning to go to work.

Miss McGeown:

I agree with Joe. I would rather be in work, but it is much more beneficial for me to be in tech. When we are in the workplace, we stay in a certain section for several months and do the same work every day, whereas in tech we do a variety of jobs in different areas and sections. That is more beneficial.

The Chairperson:

I found it easier to go into the kitchen than the classroom, until I realised that until I went into the classroom, there would be no kitchen.

Mr Doyle:

That is the same for us. There is too much paperwork involved in the bricklaying course. Bricklaying is not about studying books and answering questions but about getting out there and building. I do not like the amount of paperwork involved. As you said, you would rather have been in the kitchen than doing paperwork in the classroom. You learn more when you are in the kitchen; you learn that not everything is done by the book.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter:

Stuart, you mentioned that the university equipment is not suitable for your level of training. Are you suggesting that that equipment is obsolete and that the course would be more relevant if the university had the same equipment that you use at work?

Mr Emmet:

The machine in Queen’s University is up to date, but the training that was provided was not accurate — it was not explained well.

The Chairperson:

We have a saying that something is not industry-ready.

Mr Emmet:

In that case, the course was not industry-ready.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter:

I am trying to establish whether there is a deficiency in the university’s preparation.

Mr Emmet:

Yes.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter:

The Committee must look into that.

Mr McClarty:

Believe it or not, Stuart, it is more than 11 years since I was at school.

I want to find out from each of you what your prospects for full-time employment are when you have finished your apprenticeships. Joe, you know the boss, so you might be all right.

Mr Doyle:

It does not always work out like that.

Mr McClarty:

No, it does not. What is the prospect of gaining full-time employment after your apprenticeship, Joe?

Mr Doyle:

The prospects for bricklayers are poor at the moment. Before the recession, when the industry was booming, apprentices finished their courses at tech and went straight into work.

Mr McClarty:

Would you be prepared to travel?

Mr Doyle:

Aye; we have done jobs all over Ireland, which is good because it means that I am not working in the city all the time. I have worked on houses in the country, and I am happy to see the work that I have done as I drive. That is better than being stuck in the city all the time.

Miss McGeown:

The chances of my getting a full-time job after my apprenticeship with Translink are fantastic. Ninety-nine per cent of Translink’s apprentices are offered a full-time position at the end of their apprenticeships. Also, there is the opportunity to go on to study for a higher national certificate (HNC) or degree and work up through the company. Translink fully supports further training for those who have finished their apprenticeships.

Mr McClarty:

If successful, you would be a female in a fairly male-dominated industry. Would you be treated differently from anyone else?

Miss McGeown:

No.

Mr McCluskey:

When I finish my course and get my qualification, my job prospects will be very good. Like Jenny, I will have the chance to do more courses and climb higher up the ladder.

Mr Emmet:

I am already in full-time employment, but I go to the South Eastern Regional College on day release. When I finish my course for a national certificate, which is equivalent to two A levels, I will continue to do my job; however, I will be able to help my company to save money in certain ways, because of the course that I am doing.

Mr McClarty:

Finally, are you typical apprentices or are you the four best apprentices from a fairly ordinary bunch? It may be difficult for you to answer that. Do you regard yourselves as typical apprentices?

Mr Doyle:

Oh aye. The fellow sitting behind me is no different from me — he is a bricklayer, too. He knows just as much as I do. I do not want to put myself in front of other people who are also trying to learn. I am an “average Joe”.

The Chairperson:

Is this a tech day or a work day?

Mr Emmet:

Today is a work day — I had to think about that.

The Chairperson:

What did your company say when you asked to come here?

Miss McGeown:

We were given the day off work.

Mr Doyle:

It is for a good reason.

The Chairperson:

At least you are getting something from the experience.

Miss McGeown:

It looks good for us in our places of employment — we are not sick and we do not have doctors’ appointments, we have the day off work because we trying to help the company and promote apprenticeships.

The Chairperson:

You are helping us, too. This has been an interesting morning for the Committee. It is great to hear about the positive outcomes of your apprenticeships in particular, instead of always hearing about the negative. We hope to highlight some of the things that need a bit of tweaking. If we can to do that, we should have a seamless link between schools, colleges and universities as well as the industry.

One key point that has been made this morning is that training might not be industry-ready. According to careers advisers in secondary schools, students need to be industry-ready for whatever sector they choose to work in. We must try to get that right and link up like the Olympic rings, especially now that we are in a new dispensation.

Thank you for coming. Someone will get your contact details because we might be useful to one another. A member of staff will take you to the Basement Restaurant for a cup of tea or coffee and a scone. Do not go nuts, though; it is on me. [Laughter.]

Miss McGeown:

If I may say so, my school did not encourage me when I finished school and went to a tech to start an NVQ. However, some schools operate day-release programmes to the techs to encourage students to do apprenticeships.

The Chairperson:

I know that some schools are very good and have bought into apprenticeships. Some of the members cannot remember that far back.

Mr Doyle:

A lot of apprentices do courses so that they can work on a building site. However, a lot of them cannot get jobs, because foreign people who have come in will do jobs for a cheap price. They get jobs before we do, and we go through two or three years of training. That is another reason why people are unable to get jobs.

Miss McGeown:

They are also less encouraged to train.

The Chairperson:

It is about getting a happy medium, too. Many people from these shores go across the water to a lot of different places. We need to get a happy medium to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities. I take your point.

Mr Doyle:

However, the ones who are qualified —

The Chairperson:

I take your point; we should not employ people as cheap or slave labour. It is a matter of getting that balance right. The world is open it us all. Thank you for coming.

Mr Hilditch:

Can the Committee find out what support exists for people who are paid off during their apprenticeships? I have just taken a telephone call from two guys who have been paid off and who have been down at their local benefits office. They have been told that they can go to technical college so that they can continue their education, but, as soon as they start to claim jobseeker’s allowance, they cannot do that. Can we get some background as to what support is available to the apprentices who are being paid off? It is OK for us to get monthly figures, but can we delve deeper into the situation?

The Chairperson:

We will check that out. The Minister has sent a letter to Executive colleagues about the training allowance today. We should be able to get a copy once it has gone through that process. It should answer some of those questions. The departmental Assembly liaison officer is here today, so we should be able to find out specific details.

Find Your MLA

tools-map.png

Locate your local MLA

Find MLA

News and Media Centre

tools-media.png

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

tools-social.png

Keep up to date with what’s happening at the Assem

Find out more

Contact information

tools-newsletter.png

Contact us for further information about our work.

Contact us