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Apprentice shipyard plans run aground

Steve Hook reports on how the LSC is helping a beleaguered Merseyside project

WADAH Hariz thought he had it made. As he married his sweetheart in a Liverpool hotel, he was looking forward to getting a house and having children, his future secured with a four-year apprenticeship at shipbuilder Cammell Laird.

Now, nine months later, he and his wife live with his parents on the Wirral, their plans for a family have had to be postponed, and they are wondering when Blair's "something for something" society will touch their lives.

He is one of 280 apprentices who were based at the yard when the company went into receivership. Greater Merseyside Learning and Skills Council, which paid the apprentices for four weeks after the receiver said it would have to let them go, has now stepped in to provide them with "enhanced training allowances" to keep them going for a further six months. After that, they stand to get just pound;40 a week.

"I worked hard, which is what the politicians say they want you to do, and we have been told we can continue with our training for the full four years, whatever happens to the shipyard," he said.

"But in six months we will only be getting pound;40 a week. We might as well be on the dole."

There are alternatives. Across the river from Birkenhead, on Liverpool's seafront, a temporary Royal Marines recruitment centre beckons silently like a lady in the night, offering the kind of excitement which is often lacking in the local economy.

The north-west's hub of working-class youngsters, with often-limited employment prospects, has traditionally been a fertile recruiting ground for the armed services.

Another option is what remains of the rest of the British ship-building industry, including Barrow, on the Cumbrian coast.

"I don't want to move away," says Warah. "This is my home. But the problem is that I am a first-year trainee. We are the least skilled."

It is perhaps fortunate that the LSC, from whose Liverpool office staff can see Birkenhead and its blighted shipyard, also wants to keep the likes of Wadah and his workmates in the area.

After all the fine words which ushered the LSC into being in April, the meltdown at Cammell Laird has provided its first test of effectiveness on the ground. The money flows from the Government to the LSC and, in the shipyard's case, to the Laird Foundation, which is responsible for the apprentices' training. Fortunately for its own long-term prospects, it is not part of Cammell Laird.

What happens to these apprentces will be the first test of how all these organisations are able to perform in the new climate of post-16 workplace training.

To the public, the LSC means little. Stop and ask someone in Birkenhead where the jobcentre is and their arm swings round with the certainty of a needle on a compass. Ask a shipyard apprentice what they know about the LSC, and the response is a blank face.

To the Laird Foundation's management, however, the LSC's response on behalf of the apprentices has been impressively swift and free of bureaucratic delays of the sort which are associated with the provision of public funds.

The company's downfall, and the LSC's intervention, came after an Italian company failed to pay up for a pound;50 million pay-on-delivery contract to build the centre section of a cruise liner. The section of ship sits in the yard, undelivered.

The latest six months of subsidy towards the apprentices' training will cost pound;1.3m, of which pound;850,000 comes from the LSC. Wirral Council is contributing pound;200,000, which includes pound;100,000 of single regeneration budget money.

Before receivership, and during the four months of LSC subsidy which followed, trainees got pound;70.53 in year 1, pound;111 to pound;142 in year 2, depending on their age, pound;148 in year three and pound;194 in year 4.

For the six-month period they are getting pound;50 in year 1, pound;90 in year 2 and pound;100 in year 3, and the same as their previous salaries in year 4. Apprentices in years 1-3 also get a travel allowance of at least pound;10 a week.

For the time being, year 3 apprentices are actually involved in ship-building. Meanwhile, the LSC has provided a full-time member of staff to look for work opportunities which match the apprentices' skills.

The best result for many on this historic yard, though, would be a last-minute contract to see off liquidation. Their hearts are in shipbuilding.

A launch day at Cammell Laird is one of the few occasions when you can see grown men cry without spending an afternoon watching Everton at Goodison Park.

John Nulty, the Laird Foundation's commercial manager, has been with the yard since the 1950s. He admits to having shed the odd tear himself, standing with his workmates and their families as their latest creation slips into the waters of the Mersey.

But this veteran of one of Merseyside's oldest heavy industries is unable to find words to describe how he will feel when the yard completes its last order, likely to be a repair job on two Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships for the Ministry of Defence.

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