Mar 2014 / Company

Jonathan Davies, skills ambassador for ACT, talks to the Western Mail about his background as an apprentice and why society needs take note of this route to employment

 No doubt a few of you reading this will have seen my picture on the education pages and done a double take, perhaps checking the page number to check you hadn’t inadvertently skipped to the sports pages. You’re not mistaken because, despite this Sunday’s epic Wales v England clash, it’s an altogether different cause I’m championing today.

This week marked the annual Apprenticeship Week, a time to promote the opportunities offered through this route to employment and to recognise the journey of transformation that apprenticeships have undergone in the past few decades, both in terms of the difference they can make to people’s lives and public perception of them.

While our calendars may seem saturated by dedicatory weeks such as this, for training providers such as ACT, which are at the coal-face of the employment market, it’s a key time to stop and think about how to promote the opportunities they provide for young people to ensure they recognise the employment options available to them.

There’s no doubt that, in some quarters at least, apprenticeships suffer something of an image problem. The very fact that we dedicate a week to them is case in point – after all we don’t tend to hear about a ‘higher education week’, do we! Clearly, there’s more work to do to achieve a shift in perception so that all employers and young people to recognise vocational learning as a route to sustainable employment, but huge headway is being made.

You may wonder on what basis I make these comments. It’ll be a lesser-known fact to some that I was an apprentice painter decorator before my rugby career took off. While I enjoyed school and would probably have enjoyed university, circumstances led me down an alternative path and I’ve always been someone who puts 100% in to anything I do so, aged-16, I left school and became an apprentice painter decorator. I completed a City and Guilds qualification three years later before working in a number of related roles in Trimsaran and Cardiff before my rugby career took off.

Although rugby was always my passion, I treated the experience and exerted the same amount of effort as anyone starting their career, and many of the skills I gained from this stage of my life have stayed with me to this day. We hear a great deal from employers about ‘work readiness’ and ‘basic’ or ‘soft skills’ needed for the workplace. Such soft skills include attitude, time-management, discipline, punctuality and workplace awareness. My role as skills ambassador for ACT brings me into contact with employers from all types of industry and a bugbear that consistently crops up is that many young people don’t possess these skills and values. It’s skills such as these which enable a young person to succeed or fail and the apprenticeship model is recognised as one which embeds these basic workplace skills in a person for life.

For me, the basic principles of discipline, motivation and commitment have stuck with me throughout my sporting career. Learning to accept a rigid and disciplined working routine – something that’s crucial in sport but that doesn’t come easily to everyone – was really key for me. I also learnt the value of teamwork, confidence and earning the respect of other people. As a shy and nervous 16-year-old starting out in the world of work, I had a lot to learn and the apprenticeship set me up for life in this sense.

Of course, we’ve come a long way since I was an apprentice and vocational studies as a pathway to employment are becoming more varied and prestigious. Recent news that privately educated pupils have been warned by Girls’ School Association president Hilary French they can no longer afford to be ‘sniffy’ about apprenticeships, and that MI5 and MI6 are now recruiting apprentices, are testament to this. As more employers and educationalists recognise the value vocational qualifications can bring to both the organisation and the individual, we are at last witnessing the kind of ground-level change industry-leaders have long maintained can help meet the challenges facing the economy.

And it’s a movement that is only gaining more momentum as the effects of decisions on higher education fees deter many young people from wanting to pursue the university route. The challenge now is to ensure that we are not simply paying lip service to the cause and that the true benefits of this route to employment are recognised. Encouraging more employers to get on board will be key to the solution but it must be a collective effort. Apprenticeships must become engrained options in society so that it becomes as normal to pursue this route to employment as it does any other.

Ahead of Sunday, as we prepare to support the Welsh team, many of whom will achieved their ultimate goal through years of skill-based, on-the-job training, it is timely to think about the parallels between these men and young apprentices all over Wales who are committing to years of dedication and hard work to succeed in their own chosen industries.