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Help for sinking ship apprentices

Learning and Skills Council draws on funds to aid trainee shipbuilders about to lose their jobs. Steve Hook reports

SHIPYARD apprentices in Merseyside have become the first to benefit from the Learning and Skills Council's role as a troubleshooter in cases where large-scale job-losses are expected.

"We're very much aware that this is 'put your money where your mouth is time' for the LSC and we are going to do everything we can to help these people," said a spokeswoman for Merseyside LSC.

While receivers Pricewaterhouse Coopers work to find a buyer for Cammell Laird's Meryseyside works at Birkenhead, they have warned that cuts in the number of Modern Apprenticeships are inevitable. They are optimistic, though, that a new owner will be found for the business, which also includes shipyards on Teesside and Tyneside.

Merseyside LSC has drawn from its pound;3.5 million local initiative fund to fund their placements for up to four weeks, which would cost pound;140,000, and provide additional help for those who will need to find jobs elsewhere. The receivers say they can no longer afford the pound;35,000-a-week bill to keep the MAs on.

There will be advice on how to apply for jobs, including CV-writing, and research to match their skills to vacancies around Merseyside. Wirral unemployment stands at 24 per cent.

The LSC moved quickly to take over the wages payments as soon as they were stopped by receivers this week and meetings have been held with businesses and Frank Field, the Birkenhead MP, to preparethe ground for finding longer-term training and employment opportunies. The Laird Foundation, a charitable training company which has a contract with the LSC and includes a Cammell Laird director on its board, said it was impressed with the speed of the LSC's response.

Not as impressed perhaps as Paul Gillies, 23, an apprentice who wrote to Education Secretary David Blunkett asking him to do something to help him and his colleagues, and got a personal assurance by return.

Mr Blunkett wrote back saying: "Lairds proved they were prepared to invest in their own future, and that of the industry, by taking on such a high number of apprentices. We now need to make every effort to try to retain your skills in the industry and to ensure they are not lost to the wider economy.

"I want to give you my personal assurance of this Government's commitment to you as individuals who represent the future of engineering in this country, which is why I am replying to you personally."

The writing was on the wall for the MAs as soon as Cammell Laird fell into receivership over the collapse of a ship-building contract with an Italian company. The 282 MAs, out of a total workforce of 3,500, are a higher proportion than in most companies, and it was clear their numbers would probably be reduced by any future employer.

The apprentices earn between pound;70 and pound;180 a week.

There have been 150 job-losses announced at Birkenhead, 110 at Teesside, where the yard has closed, and a further 60 at Tyneside.

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