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Hold the swan song

Nick Holdsworth finds a shipyard's closure has not stopped training for its apprentices. When the Tyneside shipbuilder Swan Hunter went into receivership the workforce of 2,400 knew redundancies would swiftly follow.

Today, 18 months later, barely 90 are left maintaining the now ghostly shipyard, its view across the Tyne to Jarrow no longer blocked by the navy frigates which made it famous. The last navy order, HMS Richmond, a Type 23 frigate, sailed down the river in November.

But, for one group, 21 trainees recruited to Swan's own forward-looking apprenticeship scheme launched in 1991, the dark cloud hanging over the firm's future may yet prove to have a silver lining. They have worked on through the trauma since May 1993 when the receivers were called in, and gained the skills required for National Vocational Qualifications at level three (A-level equivalent) under the scheme Swan introduced in partnership with the yard's unions and training agencies.

The scheme, distinct from traditional time-served apprenticeships, was a model for the Government's modern apprenticeships, introduced in pilot form last year.

With no more work at the yard and the prospect of a bleak future unless a buyer can be found, the unions, the remaining management and Tyneside's Training and Enterprise Council have joined forces to find the trainees new jobs.

Places have already been found for eight, and two of the trainees - now in their 20s - have gone on to university courses. The TEC is offering employers a Pounds 1,000 subsidy over 20 weeks if they agree to take a trainee on for at least six months and is paying for college placements and additional training now they have left the yard.

Individual training assessments to gauge skills levels have been drawn up for each of the trainees by North Tyneside Training (a local non-profit-making body), brought in by the TEC to ensure the young men - and one woman - do not miss. The industry lead body, the Marine and Engineering Training Association, is developing training schemes. Firms and industrial associations likely to be able to offer jobs are regularly canvassed and told of the skills the Swan trainees are gaining, such as domestic plumbing qualifications or special welding techniques, while they wait for a suitable opening.

Union leader Dick Gonsalez says the TEC's response proves what can be done in the face of adversity. "In effect, receivership has produced a training system second to none because of the TEC's influence and the efforts being done to diversify the training."

Mr Gonsalez, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union convenor at Swan Hunter, said the skills the trainees were now picking up, which included registration for recognised craft professional standards, would make them even more attractive to employers.

"There is one thing that skilled people have which the unskilled don't: something to sell. Without a skill you have nothing and are left to the whims of the market place."

Walter Kemp, economic development manager at Tyneside TEC, said: "We realised straight away that this was about the investment in these youngsters' future. We wanted to make sure that at the very least they could continue working and training. Where possible we wanted to find alternative employment for them. "

Jobs have already been found for some trainees at North Tyneside Council, the Tyneside Passenger Transport Executive and Northern Electric and other firms. It has not been easy: other engineering firms have also been shedding hundreds of workers. But Olivia Grant, chief executive at the TEC, stressed that its response was not limited to Swan's: "This is not unique to Swan Hunter - where there are other companies in the same position we will do the same thing.

"We have an obligation to do our utmost to help trainees get qualified to the level offered when they took the traineeships on. We want to invest in these young people by helping them to retain their maritime skills but broadening them for other markets."

The trainees are taking each day as it comes, relieved that for the time being they are still collecting regular wages. Carl Fell, 21, from Blythe, said: "Each time we complete something and get a certificate it's a bonus - you're getting extra skills. We're working from pay day to pay day, having a laugh and supporting each other and hoping there still be work next week."

Fred Hawyes, employee relations manager at Swan Hunter, said: "The gates to the yard are not yet welded shut - while it's still open we're hoping a buyer will be found and it will survive. There's a great loyalty to Swan Hunter here on Tyneside."

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