Those we interviewed spoke movingly about the sense of purpose becoming an apprentice gave them, while some also remarked about how difficult it was to find out about apprenticeships in the first place. The key message from those who had been out of work was that their apprenticeship was a fresh start, and gave them the opportunity to overcome the challenge to prove that they were not failures. Older apprentices, who came from a rich variety of backgrounds, said almost as one voice that they wanted to change their lives. Many made it clear that the 'work, learn and earn' model of apprenticeships was particularly attractive. And the common feature of all the accounts was their immense pride in their achievements, not only their improvements in skills but also how these gains had transformed their family lives, their confidence and their self esteem.
Of course, all these apprentices were nominated for a national award, so the sample is necessarily biased – all had achieved, and all were working with employers who were supportive and proud of their success. However there was a general view among the nominees that there is not enough public information about apprenticeships, and that more needed to be made of web-based information, and the use of social media. And most felt that one-to-one advice and encouragement from the Employer, training provider or college was the principal route into an apprenticeship.
If apprenticeships are going to, once again, become a start to sustainable careers it is vital to get insights and views wherever we can. This week I had a new kitchen fitted. The two fitters took just two days to build and fit the units, working quietly and harmoniously together, one leader and one younger man just out of his apprenticeship. Over many cups of sweet tea, we talked apprenticeships. Steve told us that he completed his 3 years of apprenticeship with a large firm. As well as his skills in constructing a kitchen from a lorry load of flat packs, it was clear that his course had taught him a range of other employability skills - knowing how to talk to his customers; tidying up his tools at the end of the day; hosing down the yard; even washing his cup up! He was a bright, confident, skilled young man, happy to talk about his course, his work experience and how he tried to give the customer what she wanted.
Two days later the craftsman measuring up for the granite worktop spent half a day with us. Again we soon got talking apprenticeships - his was served many years ago, seven years learning the trade and craft of being a joiner. Two of those seven years were spent solely learning French polishing. His skills - building a kitchen from scratch, buying, measuring, cutting, making joints, finishing off - have all but disappeared, unnecessary, as he put it, when the lads from DIY stores can build a flat pack kitchen from scratch in 24 hours. But had the skills he learnt as an apprentice enabled him to move on? He was clear that they had – 'you learn flexibility, how to adapt your skills'. And now he has a good second career, as a skilled craftsman, working in granite and Derbyshire stone.
Both of these men had undergone a rigorous apprenticeship process, learning alongside and from highly skilled older workers; they had worked their way up through the ranks and knew this was how things had to be; alongside the technical skills they had learnt a range of other things - adaptability, customer care, good timekeeping.
This week we celebrate National Apprenticeship Week where we'll be hearing from policy-makers, employers and providers; NIACE is clear that we also need to give an equal amount of attention to what current and former apprentices have to say if we want to ensure more, different and better apprenticeships.
A free copy of The Apprentices' Journey is available to download from the NIACE website - http://shop.niace.org.uk/the-apprentices-journey.htmlCarol Taylor is director of development and research at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning