An apprenticeship where boys learn to become men

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Young men are in crisis, according to one of the founders of Working Rite, a project that puts formal qualifications to one side in favour of an age-old rite of passage. Henry Hepburn reports

Adolescent boys have an innate desire to prove they are men. Since time immemorial they have learnt what it takes by following the example of older men. But in a post-industrial age where formal education dominates, that generational bond has weakened.

This, explains Sandy Campbell, is where Working Rite comes in. It is, he says, neither college course, work experience nor training. In the modern jargon, it might be called a mentoring project. But these are words never uttered by participants; for them it is simply "work". It bucks against three received wisdoms about working with young men, as Mr Campbell, one of the project's founders, explains:

- Everything has to be mixed gender - "no, we say they are far better with their own gender";

- Peer learning is best - "no, learning from elders is best";

- Get vocational qualifications - "no, we are saying learn from experience".

Working Rite is unashamedly - but not exclusively - male-dominated and rooted in the construction industry.

Mr Campbell argues that, while girls have more obvious signs of approaching adulthood - menstruation, changing body shape and the ability to give birth - boys' outward evidence of maturity might only be a few wispy whiskers: "That's why boys have always felt the need to prove they've made a change."

He believes "statistics are screaming out" that boys need help, citing the far greater likelihood that they will be found in court, car accidents or care homes than girls.

"It's about understanding teenage boys at the age of 16," he says. "We can all remember that time - the hormones, wanting to talk about the future, wanting to prove you're a man but feeling like a boy. Since the beginning of time, elders have helped youngsters into the adult world."

But the rapid disappearance of Scotland's manufacturing base and inexpensive foreign labour have denied many boys the chance to work closely with skilled men who could have helped them through this rite of passage (hence Working Rite).

"We have panicked as a society and thought the only way to respond is by upskilling our workforce and making them university graduates - personally, I think we've lost the plot a bit," he says.

Mr Campbell points to an "explosion of rebuilding" generated by the London Olympics, Glasgow Commonwealth Games, work on the A9 and the new Forth Bridge, and the housing boom; he also speculates that rising oil prices will make it too expensive to rely on imports. "Who's going to make things?" he says. "We can't all have degrees."

The standard practice of Working Rite is to give struggling young men, aged 16 or a little over, a six-month stint with a tradesman. It is a model which emerged from an Edinburgh project called Training Opportunities in Leith, in 2004, but now also has versions in Glasgow (Govan), Perth, Sheffield, Sunderland and Newcastle.

Each tradesman takes on just one young man. "You're not going to get someone ready for work by putting them on a course where part of what they're doing is playing pool, hanging around with each other and staying in their peer group," Mr Campbell explains.

Crucially, they are placed with men whom they would be unlikely to meet through a college course or more formal placement scheme. These tradesmen are all in small firms with 70 employees at most, and often self-employed. They tend to dislike paperwork and are suspicious of words like "mentor" and "coach", with the whiff of officialdom they carry. So Working Rite involves no jargon or paperwork for them to deal with.

The tradesmen are also encouraged by the promise of an enthusiastic young man, typically from the same community and a similar background. If the young man is not up to scratch, they are told, they do not have to keep him on.

To make it an even better deal, they only have to pay pound;1 an hour, or pound;35 a week, for the privilege. In Scotland, the rest of the pound;90 a week paid to the boys comes from Scottish Enterprise (in Perth and Leith) and European funding (in Govan). The minimum wage does not apply because, even if it feels like work, this is officially a training course.

"It's enough money to make the tradesmen bothered if a boy doesn't turn up, but not be a risk to their business," Mr Campbell says.

The tradesmen and boys are not left entirely to their own devices. Working Rite projects employ co-ordinators who remain as hands-off as possible, otherwise it creates a "difficult dynamic". They make sure the boys are not doing too little or too much.

For the young men, Working Rite dangles a way out of the "merry-go-round" of initiatives. It also has credibility because, unlike many other projects, they must go through an interview and are not guaranteed a placement. "It feels like they're out of the system," Mr Campbell says. "They're not saying 'I'm on a course' - they're saying I'm working with a joiner', and it has instant credibility - it feels like they've made it."

This approach has so far given a chance to some 200 boys. About 80 per cent have completed the six months, of which almost all have got a job or apprenticeship - mostly with the same tradesman.

Thanks to the bond formed with a tradesman, Mr Campbell and co-founder Alan Nicol can reel off examples of how boys have grown up. One tradesman asked a boy how much he gave his mum for board and lodging. "Nothing," was the reply. The tradesman was unimpressed and spent all week unsuccessfully trying to get hold of the boy's mobile phone to discuss the situation with his mother. By chance, the tradesman bumped into the mother, who told him: "You're the best thing that ever happened to my boy - he gave me pound;15 this week."

In the world of his peers, no one was giving their mum anything as keep; in the world of tradesmen, this is what you do, says Mr Campbell. "Boys want to copy the tradesmen - they want a sense of what it is to be a man."

A boy in Perth told Mr Campbell he wanted to get an apprenticeship, get experience of work with a big firm for about five years, then, in his late twenties or early thirties, start up his own business. "I'd just heard a 15-year career plan - the last time I heard someone do that, it was a doctor," he says.

Mr Campbell believes that boys finish their six months with far better "cultural knowledge of what a workplace is like" than graduates of more conventional training courses.

He recalls one tradesman's observation that "the main thing you need to survive is site awareness". That might refer to safety, but Mr Campbell says it can also mean social awareness: "Knowing who gets the sandwiches, or knowing Jimmy likes the Record and not The Sun, that Bob wants brown sauce on his eggs but Bert doesn't."

Chris Anderson, 16, has long since ingratiated himself with his older colleagues at Govan's Central Building Contractors, where he arrived last year to work alongside foreman Michael Feighan. "He's always treated me well and told me what to do," he says. "I get on really well with him. I can go and ask Michael about things. You get a bit more respect than at school - everybody here makes you feel welcome. I listen to them."

Chris tries his hand at various trades, as well as generally keeping the site spick and span. "It feels like I'm doing a job, because I'm always working," he says. "I'm always doing my bit to keep the place tidy."

Mr Feighan has seen a big change in Chris: "At the outset, he was very quiet and into himself, but he's certainly come out of his shell. Obviously there's a lot of banter on site, but he can hold his own now."

Chris is keen to get an apprenticeship, and Mr Feighan is putting in a good word with contacts in the construction trade. "You get young guys who think the whole world is against them," Mr Feighan says. "But if they can do something like this, they find out the old lads aren't that bad and we can try and teach them something."



Working Rite is about boys becoming men. So where does 18-year-old Stephanie Day fit in?

The answer is that projects under the Working Rite banner have only a loose affiliation and are free to adapt the basic model. So Glasgow South West Regeneration Agency continues to fly the flag for on-the-job training with a mentor, but has expanded to take girls, and office work.

Stephanie works closely with book-keeper Natalie O'Neill at One Stop Safety Systems, a Govan-based provider of "safety solutions" to construction sites. "It's nice having Natalie to keep an eye on you. I just annoy her all the time," Stephanie jokes.

But she has a serious job to do. "We stress that she's not just here to make the numbers up," Mrs O'Neill says.

Before Stephanie's arrival the company was losing track of a lot of equipment, but she now keeps a log and makes sure suppliers know what is on site. "She's doing some pretty important stuff," Mrs O'Neill says.

Stephanie previously did hairdressing at college, but did not enjoy the experience. "You learn more here," she says. "You can't carry on as much when you're away from folk the same age as you."

Stephanie's youth and eagerness to learn have been a big hit. "It's been great - when you bring in somebody with a lot of experience, they think they know it all," Mrs O'Neill says. "It's nice to have young people about."

Stephanie is in no doubt about what she brings to the office, as she reminds Mrs O'Neill: "Who else would you discuss the soaps with?"

Since The TESS spoke to Natalie, she has been offered and accepted a permanent job at One Stop Safety Systems.

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