There aren’t many boardrooms I’d rave about but if you’re lucky enough to get a chance to visit Harland & Wolff’s then grab it with both hands.
It is packed with mahogany furniture of the finest quality including one of the longest boardroom tables every created, models of ships it has made and oil platforms it has refurbished, each of which can tell a story about the iconic ship yard’s history and the men and women who worked there.
The contents of the room are fascinating, and most interesting of all is a modest-looking wooden box with just a couple of brass buttons.
Made by one of the yard’s apprentices, it was designed to train other apprentices to use their ingenuity; only by pressing the buttons in the right order would the box open.
Obviously, I didn’t manage to open it but my unedifying fumbling did impress on me how important apprentices must have been to one of our biggest companies, as they were to other manufacturing behemoths such as Short Brothers and the raft of smaller companies who saw the value in training their own staff.
Yes lots of young green horns were sent for a “long weight” and a “tin of tartan” paint by their more experienced colleagues but they were learning on the job and would emerge from their apprenticeship – which often took five years – with a trade and a job.
The decline of heavy manufacturing in Northern Ireland saw the number of apprenticeships decline sharply in the 80s but it has been picking up in recent years once again as companies again place more importance on actual on-the-job experience than on academic qualifications.
And it’s not just manufacturing companies which have been promoting such a route, with many professional services and other types of business jumping on the apprentice bandwagon, not just with young apprentices but also for older people looking to change career or restart a career.
It’s definitely worth thinking about, especially given nearly all apprenticeships will allow you to obtain some form of on-the-job qualification, whether it’s a City and Guilds or degree.
However, at present, government, and in particular Stormont’s current stalemate, has thrown a spanner in the works.
That’s because a UK-wide Apprenticeship Levy has been rolled out in a haphazard manner leaving companies out of pocket and apprentices wondering why the opportunities have dried up.
Levied on companies with a payroll of £3m or more a year, it was designed to get more companies to take on apprentices by charging a tax which they could then recoup by spending on approved apprentice training.
However, although firms have been paying the levy since April of this year, there has been no guidance, no indication and indeed no clue from Stormont as to how businesses go about getting said training.
With no sign of our politicians returning to governing anytime soon, it would appear the chances of the issue being resolved this side of Christmas are small.
So, if you happen to bump into any of our elected representatives, make it clear to them that their inaction is holding back a vital part of the economy and storing up problems in the future when it comes to accessing skilled labour.
Anything which gets in the way of the labour force, particularly one which is merely the result of some poor administration, needs to be sorted out, and quickly
Apprenticeships helped build Northern Ireland’s economy