In praise of apprenticeships

RECENTLY I attended two events celebrating Guernsey’s apprenticeship training culture. The first event acknowledged Guernsey’s top apprentices, whilst the second event, hosted by Guernsey’s Lt-Governor Vice Admiral Sir Ian Corder, celebrated 70 years of apprenticeships in the Bailiwick of Guernsey. The events reminded me of the rich history and community contribution of apprenticeships.

 Apprentices learning motor mechanics. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)
Apprentices learning motor mechanics. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Thinking back to my own family, I come from a long line of apprentices and tradesmen. My grandfather and thereafter my father were fitter and turners and my brother started his career as a motor mechanic.

It was reasonably assumed that I would follow in their footsteps, however I took the softer path and opted for the more gentile life of a university student. In my mind, apprenticeships are not the lesser path compared to a tertiary education. On the contrary, they are perhaps more demanding in their combination of full-time work and part-time study requiring the application of practical work with complex theoretical study.

The system of apprenticeships can be traced all the way back to the middle ages involving master craftsmen ‘employing’ young people as a form of cheap labour but in the process teaching them their craft. I use the term ‘employ’ loosely because often the apprentices received very little if anything by way of monetary compensation other than food and board in exchange for the opportunity to be trained in their chosen trade. Attaining of trade papers was the goal. Once attained, such papers were a ticket to the world.

In my father’s case, he trained in Slovenia, escaped post-war Yugoslavia to France with precious little by way of assets other than the clothes he wore and his precious trade papers. His trade enabled him to get work with Renault in the automotive industry, despite initially not having any grasp of the French language. The same thing applied when my parents emigrated to Australia, where they again found themselves in a country without language skills, but again that wasn’t an obstacle if they were prepared to work. My father found work as an underground fitter in the iconic Australian Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme.

Following in my father’s footsteps, my brother had a similar experience. Upon finishing his motor mechanic apprenticeship, he got work in the mining industry in Western Australia and thereafter emigrated to Chile to work in the mining industry there.

Trade papers are a ticket to work anywhere in the world regardless of language skills. Whilst a university education is certainly worthy of pursuit, the benefits of vocational and on-the-job training as part of a structured apprenticeship cannot be under-estimated. In fact, given the dearth of tradesmen as a consequence of the education emphasis from apprenticeships to tertiary education, the case for an apprenticeship education to meet consumer demand for trade skills makes employment conditions significantly enticing for apprenticeship-trained tradesmen and women.

In the case of Guernsey, the apprenticeship system recently celebrated its 70th anniversary. Commencing in 1949, it is the oldest established apprenticeship system in the UK. Some 70 new apprenticeships are commenced in Guernsey each year across a range of disciplines. Since commencement of the system in Guernsey, some 5,000 apprentices have been trained in a broad range of trades from adult and child care, construction, engineering including mechanical and motor vehicle, hairdressing, horticulture and retail.

These men and women have gone on to provide services across the island for decades in their chosen areas of training. Some have gone on to start businesses which in turn have taken on apprentices themselves to continue the legacy of apprenticeship training on the island. Apprenticeships have been described as the invisible cornerstone of Guernsey’s education and training system provided by employers with an eye for the future. It is the quiet achiever of the education and training sector.

The recent celebrations recognising the contribution of Guernsey’s apprenticeship system were worthy and well deserved. As part of the celebration events, information boards depicted the photo and career synopsis of past apprentices, some dating back to the inception of the program in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I had the pleasure of meeting a number of the depicted ‘tradies’, each with their own colourful account of their early formative training years and the progression of their careers since. The constant in all the accounts was the fond memories each had of their apprenticeship days. From the ribbing they endured to the nicknames they were given, which seem to have stuck for the rest of their lives, each was an ambassador for the lifetime value of apprenticeships.

Of late, apprenticeships are again flavour of the month. We have reality TV shows dedicated to apprentices and in fact the President of the United States is a master apprentice in his own right. Governments around the world are recognising the short-sightedness of past decades where the focus was shifted from trade vocational training to tertiary university education in the belief that our youth would all be working with computers and wouldn’t need trades training. The effect of this has resulted in a shortage of trades trained people leading to tradesmen and women today enjoying better pay than most university-trained colleagues.

Youth are becoming increasingly disillusioned with university education that fails to provide them with employable skills and after some three years of university leaves them with student debt that many will struggle to pay off in a lifetime.

In contrast, an apprentice can ‘earn while they learn’ and, after three years, graduates with their trade papers free of student debt. Provided an apprentice is canny with their earnings, they can significantly catapult their financial status ahead of their university-trained colleagues. From an employer’s point of view, they can train future employees in the most relevant skills they need.

Needless to say, I’m a great fan of the apprenticeship system and it was my pleasure to raise a glass to the Lt-Governor’s toast and offer three cheers for the Guernsey Apprenticeship. Seventy years young and with a renewed focus and appreciation, apprenticeships have been somewhat maligned for the past number of decades, but have risen back into rightful prominence and recognition.

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