Learning at the side of a master
Reversing the skills shortage : If being under-experienced and over-qualified is stifling your career, gaining skills on the job with an expert may be the answer. David Cohen reports on a form of training that's back in vogue
Saturday June 9, 2001
Apprenticeships are once again in vogue. In March the government injected an extra £180m into its Modern Apprenticeships scheme and hopes to boost the number of young people joining up to 320,000 by 2004.
Unfortunately, you have to be under 19 years of age to get on the scheme. What's more, the programme isn't geared to supporting apprenticeships with sole traders, with the result that many esoteric crafts and trades - clock-repair, picture restoration, furniture making and the like - are being left by the wayside.
But, the shortfall has spurred a new wave of motivated masters to hunt for apprentices on their own to keep their trades alive. Many advertise through careers centres in Further Education colleges, or turn to organisations such as the Apprentice Master Alliance (AMA), which aims to promote apprenticeships for people of all ages through its online database of vacancies.
"The apprenticeships we advertise differ from Modern Apprenticeships in that they are usually based on personal, informal relationships," says Stephanie Wienrich, spokesperson for the AMA, a London-based charity. "Our masters normally work alone, or in a small team, and don't have the time for the paperwork demanded by the government's scheme. They can be anywhere in the country, some are even overseas."
By all accounts, embarking on an apprenticeship requires a great deal of motivation and dedication. Most offer low wages and long hours, but, for those who persevere, they can be very rewarding.
Jacqui Hammond began her apprenticeship to an interior designer in May last year. "I always thought of apprenticeships as old fashioned, even a form of slave labour. I never imagined I'd do one, but I just love it. It's opened a whole area that was unavailable to me before."
Jacqui, a graduate in psychology from Manchester University, was working as a production assistant for a company making TV commercials when she found the apprenticeship at Notting Hill-based interior design agency Addison-Nelson Design.
"I was trying to get into art direction and set design, but it was proving extremely difficult. I thought about going to college to try to do an art degree, but then I saw an ad for the AMA website in the Guardian and had a look." She found three interior designers, which she applied to, and was taken on after her first interview.
Though some apprenticeships require evidence of previous experience in the trade, many are still happy to take on complete novices. "I was amazed they accepted me," says Jacqui. "I'd never done interior design before. At the beginning I said I was just looking for work experience, but they said they'd teach me everything I needed to know."
Jacqui's master is not the only one to prefer absolute beginners. "It gives us a fresh start," agrees Jeffrey Rosson, who runs an apprenticeship in clock-making at City Clocks in London. "That way they don't come with preconceived ideas about how to do things."
The backgrounds of apprentices are as varied as their professions. Vincent Large, aged 36, is about to complete a three-year apprenticeship in furniture making at the prestigious Edward Barnsley workshop - its commissions include the Lord Chancellor's dining table and several pieces for Westminster Abbey.
"I'd spent much of my twenties travelling and worked in furniture shops to fund this, but I was always making quite simple, boring pieces. My wife and I were expecting a child and so I decided to do a City & Guilds furniture course.
"When I finished the course I had two options, a job offer at £5 per hour or the apprenticeship. The apprenticeship was poorly paid and it meant I'd stay on family credit and income support, but I thought the work would be far more creative and interesting."
The Barnsley workshop runs a non-governmental scheme, so it can only afford to take on one apprentice a year. Apprentices receive one-to-one training from experienced craftsmen and are encouraged to work on com missions as soon as their skills are up to standard. A similar home-grown apprenticeship programme is run in the workshop of renowned furniture designer John Makepeace in Dorset.
As with many other apprenticeships, both teach the ins and outs of running a small business as well as the practical skills of their craft. But they can only afford to pay their apprentices the minimum wage.
Jacqui was fortunate enough to get a moderate salary from day one, but she earns her keep. "I started last May on £50 a day, and that eventually went up to £60," she says. "We're a small company so it means I have to do everything, including lots of admin and publicity, I'm even the IT person and I often work quite late. Sometimes I feel like I'm learning four people's jobs. I recently persuaded them I need more help, so hopefully my admin days will soon be over."
Other apprentices must find different ways to supplement their income. Vicky Snepp, now a salaried assistant designer, worked in a clothes shop while doing her apprenticeship at Karen Millen's design studios in Maidstone.
Vicky, now 23, graduated from Kent's Institute of Art and Design in Rochester last July and worked for three months in a fashion marketing agency. "I tried to get a job straight away, and approached some agencies with my portfolio, but they all said they couldn't help me until I had at least two to three years of experience." Vicky called Karen Millen's design studio and persuaded them to invite her for an interview.
"I ended up going to the studio two days a week for four months. I only got paid expenses, but I was lucky because I lived with my parents so I had no bills," she says.
The graduate suffered from the classic Catch22 - she lacked the work-experience needed to get a job and couldn't get the work experience with the job - that is one of the reasons why many people look for apprenticeships.
The Jewellery Apprentice
"It's that old thing of being under-experienced and over-qualified," says Suzanne Nelstrop. Last year Suzanne graduated from a one-year vocational jewellery course at London's Guildhall University. She had also done a four-year jewellery design course at Middlesex University, but still found it hard to get a job.
"I was looking around the internet for jobs when the apprenticeship came up." Suzanne had found an ad by Carol Mather - a self-employed jewellery maker - who was looking for an apprentice silversmith.
"I didn't want to go into a full-flung apprenticeship as I'd already done the Guildhall course, but I thought experience would be good. I contacted Carol and she agreed to let me come in on a short-term basis. She knew I was looking for jobs while I was there, but I ended up staying for three months and learnt a lot of useful skills."
Suzanne believes the apprenticeship tipped the scales in her favour when she finally got a job as a jewellery designer last autumn with Historic Originals in Reading.
Not all apprenticeships work out. Emerich Vidich runs a picture restoration workshop in London. He is apprehensive about taking on another apprentice after he says he got his fingers burnt with an inattentive individual.
"I took on a very nice 23-year-old girl who was eager to work for me. Unfortunately, she lost enthusiasm and ended up costing me a lot of money. She left the tops off tubes of very expensive paint and wasn't very careful with her work. If I do take another apprentice on, they'll definitely have to be older and more serious about the job," he says.
At the end of the day, a lot is down to the attitude of the apprentices and their relationship to their masters. And it's good to remember apprenticeships usually aren't for those who want to make a lot of money quickly.
"My mum thinks I'm mad because I don't earn enough," says Jacqui. "But then if you're only in it for the money you're no going to get the best out of life.
"I think people underestimate the pressure their job puts on their life out of work. I used to come home really tired, now I still have energy to go out, or do other things. Being an apprentice has changed my life. It's inspiring."
Modern Apprenticeships: www.apprenticeships.org.uk/
Reversing the skills Shortage:
Britain's workforce is in trouble. According to government figures we have a severe skills shortage and the main shortfall is in skilled labour traditionally provided by widespread apprenticeship.
After their near extinction in the 80s, apprenticeships were resuscitated in the early 90s under the guise of the Modern Apprenticeship (MA) scheme. Today 243,600 young people are on one. The subsidies provided by the scheme are limited to people under the age of 19 and are generally targeted at 16-year-old school leavers.
"You can start an MA with either GCSEs or an NVQ," says Chris Humphries, director-general of City and Guilds. "Though they are aimed at school leavers, we're currently reviewing that limitation and hope to open it up to people of all ages."
To join an MA, you need to visit a local job centre, or careers service. Virtually every trade is available, from health care, business, administration, IT, tourism, media, and construction, to crafts like plumbing and carpentry.
The apprenticeships last between two-and-a-half to three years, depending on the apprentice's progress, and end with an apprenticeship certificate and, if applicable, an NVQ or higher award.
Full-time, working apprentices can expect to get paid around 70% of their finishing salary. "That's at least £120 per week," says Humphries. "Otherwise, you would get the minimum £40 per week training allowance."