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New hands turn to the old trades

Traditional trades are undergoing something of a renaissance in colleges, reports Miranda Fettes

Karl Gensberg probably didn't realise what he had started when his decision to switch careers hit the headlines in February 2004. He was leaving academia to work as a gas fitter, to increase his earning potential.

Dr Gensberg was a molecular biologist at Birmingham University, with an annual salary of pound;23,000. His career change was sparked by a conversation with his plumber, who was earning considerably more.

Scores of column inches have told of plumbers and other tradesmen earning upwards of pound;30,000 a year, coupled with reports of an acute shortage of skilled people. Add to this the debate surrounding the rising cost of a university education, mounting student debt and poorly paid graduate jobs, and it is easy to see why trades have become increasingly attractive to school-leavers.

It is all good news for further education colleges, where traditional trades are undergoing something of a renaissance. Last year, 520 plumbing apprentices were taken on by Scottish firms, up from 150 four years ago.

Jewel and Esk Valley College in Midlothian has trebled the number of places on its plumbing course over the past two years to meet demand, while Dundee College is also reporting a marked rise in the number and standard of applications to apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship courses.

At Dundee College, Frank Murray, the team leader of construction crafts, is in charge of brickwork, joinery, painting, decorating and plastering and is course head of its pre-apprenticeship introduction to building.

"I think we need some kind of initiative from government so that in future the skills shortage in construction crafts will not bite so much," he says.

"We need some scheme to encourage employers to take more apprentices on, so there is a continuous supply.

"Pre-apprenticeship courses were very popular in the 1960s, then disappeared from further education. Now they've come back.

"We had over 200 applications for the course that started in August and 130-plus for the January start," he says. Each course runs for six months full time and has 28 places.

"We've been doing the pre-apprenticeship for eight years," says Mr Murray.

"I got together with the curriculum manager and the principal of the college and we could see there was a lack of apprentices training in construction. We felt we needed to address that problem for the local industry and the local community.

"In the past, we've had a large drop-off rate in people coming straight from school to do apprenticeships. After three or four months they've found out it's not for them. We're trying to prevent that, so that's why we offer a taster of everything. The pre-apprenticeship provides a taster in plumbing, electrical installation, joinery, brickwork, plastering and painting and decorating."

The first year there were 50 applicants. "The standard seems to have risen, especially this year," says Mr Murray. "The fact that we have more applicants means we can be more selective."

Mr Murray believes the surge in interest is down to a combination of the media spotlight on the trades and school initiatives.

"The fact that we're encouraging schools to be involved has highlighted it to young people and their parents.

"People tend to come and say: 'We know we're likely to get a job.' "

Kendra Wallace, 16, from Invergowrie, is one of three girls on this year's introduction to building pre-apprenticeship course. Kendra, who is considering joinery as a career, left Harris Academy with seven Standard grades at level 1 and one at level 2. She could easily have gone on to achieve good Higher results and secure a place at university, but her head of year supported her decision to pursue practical training.

"I do enjoy the academic side of things but I wanted to work with my hands," she says. "I want to do something I like. I'm interested in construction and how things are made.

"My dad used to give me art classes and I used to like building stuff, especially with wood. I made shelving things, boxes and a light that I designed myself. I've made things out of clay, glass, metal. I made my own hammer."

The practical training is fulfilling her yearning for more hands-on learning. "It's absolutely brilliant," she says. "We're learning the basics: how to make joints, how to wire plugs I "The lecturers are fantastic; they're all tradesmen. Some of them are still working as tradesmen. And there are job opportunities as you go through the course. I think the college can help set up an apprenticeship for you.

"If things do turn out well, that would be one of my main options. If you get on well, you can make quite a bit of money and have a good career. This definitely sets you up for the future.

"You get your fees paid for you if you're under 18 and I also get help with travel expenses."

The first two years of the four-year apprenticeship programmes operate on a block release basis, with apprentices studying for 18 weeks a year at college to pass their SVQ level 3. Two further years with the employer follow, after which apprentices take their health and safety and skills tests.

Mr Murray says that, while some crafts are enjoying a boost, apprenticeships in plastering and painting and decorating appear to be taking a dip, with only eight first year and 13 second year apprentices in each discipline studying at the college.

Plumbing is enjoying a boom. The college has 26 pre-apprentice plumbers and 70 plumbing modern apprentices, with two first, second and third year classes of about a dozen. Apprentice plumbers do a combination of day and block release courses over three years and fewer college hours than construction apprentices.

The college used to struggle to fill courses. "We used to get about 20 applicants; just about enough to fill a class," says Andy Bruce, the team leader for plumbing and gas. Now more than 100 people apply for every class of 12 places.

"The standard for the pre-apprentices and apprentices has gone up. We're now getting people with Highers and very good qualifications applying."

The number of apprentice electricians has gone up 40 per cent over the past three years, while those on welding and fabricating courses has also risen.

However, Chris Ashe, the team leader for electrical installation, says it is not all cause for celebration.

While there may be a surplus of applicants, there is a scarcity of qualified apprentices. He believes plenty of people aged 20 or over who have a trade already or are looking for a career change could plug the skills gap if Holyrood would offer them support.

"There's an underlying issue in terms of funding from the Scottish Executive," says Mr Ashe. "There's a major void in terms of skill but a major lack of understanding amongst those in power. At the moment the skills shortage is being filled by Eastern Europeans. Those in power need to think about what that's doing."

Age can affect the chances of securing an apprenticeship. "If you're over 19, you're at a disadvantage because there is less government funding available," says Mr Bruce. "We get a lot of interest from people who are over 25. Employers are reluctant to take them because they don't get funding."

Craig Morris, 22, from the Douglas area of Dundee, is a second year apprentice plumber. He left school at 16 and worked as a general hand in a local factory for three years. With no career development opportunities, he decided to leave his job to take up the electrical, wiring and plumbing skills pre-apprenticeship.

"I was making doors for three years, doing the same thing day in, day out, and I wasn't going anywhere," he says. "I was getting fed up and the money wasn't changing, so I decided to get on a course at college.

"I worked hard and got an award for best pre-app of the year, but when it was time to finish the course, everyone else was getting jobs and I was struggling because of my age. Mr Bruce put in a good word for me with a local plumber and he took me on.

"I started my second year in August. I'll have another year at college, then I've got to work for another year before becoming an advanced plumber.

You can earn a decent wage - pound;30K."

He hopes to start up his own business one day.

"Leaving my job at the factory was the best thing I've done."

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