But the apprentices did not join the ranks of the many workers thrown onto the scrapheap by the demise of shipbuilding. Instead, the modern apprenticeship scheme came to their rescue and gave them new and unexpected opportunities.
Cammell Laird went under because the customer which had ordered the cruise ship section failed to pay for the work. Cammell was unable to recover the money it had pumped into the construction and, in 2001, receivers were called in and the Birkenhead shipworks became another symbol of the decline of Britain's traditional industries.
The apprentices whose training was interrupted included Kevin Hill, now 21, who lives near Birkenhead. Fortunately, he and his fellow modern apprentices were able to complete their four-year programmes with an emergency funding package put together by Merseyside Learning and Skills Council.
Kevin is now employed by the same organisation that trained him, the Laird Foundation, a separate entity to Cammell Laird. He maintains the organisation's computer system. Soon he will be one of its instructors, primarily teaching 16 to 19-year-olds basic information technology skills.
In addition to his advanced modern apprenticeship in fabrication and welding, Kevin went on to train in IT with the foundation. He now has a level 2 qualifaction as an IT systems support technician, which includes setting up computer networks, hardware repair and software installation. He is training to become a trainer and assessor for people studing for the same qualifaction. Eventually, he wants to train people for what he regards as the technically simpler but more popular European Computer Driving Licence qualification.
For someone who left school without a single GCSE at grade C or better, Kevin is remarkably undaunted by the prospect of standing in front of a class of students. "I enjoyed my experience as an apprentice and I think that makes it a lot easier to train other people. And I know they will break me into it gently."
After school, Kevin got a job in catering and found the apprenticeship advertised in a local newspaper. "It seemed to be for me. I used to enjoy craft, design and technology when I was at school.
"We were working on the Italian project. I did some procurement work to find suppliers for the fittings which would go inside the ship. We found companies in Europe which could do the work and then had to contact them and sent them the specification for the job."
As it turned out, the fittings were not needed and the giant section of ship was destined for the scrapyard. "Approaching these companies abroad was a great way of learning the key skill of working with others. Obviously, numeracy came into that as well. It's one of the reasons I didn't mind the key skills. I was enjoying the responsibility.
"There wasn't any mickey-taking from other apprentices about me doing an office job. But there were a few comments when I had to go back to the shop floor about having been away from the tools and whether I'd remember how to use them."