It was no doubt a momentous moment for Suzanne Birney, and her crowning last Wednesday as Scotland's Modern Apprentice of the Year also marked the culmination of a week of activities celebrating modern apprenticeships.
The Skills Development Scotland (SDS) campaign involved hundreds of events taking place in schools and beyond to highlight the success and potential of the training scheme.
Modern apprenticeships - in which apprentices are employed by a company, paid a salary and given on-the-job training, while also learning the theory behind their chosen trade at college - have become central to vocational education in Scotland.
In 2012-13, 25,619 people began modern apprenticeships, compared with only 9,502 in 2000-01. In fact, SDS has exceeded its target of delivering 25,000 new starts every year for the past three years.
Modern apprenticeships are set to become even more of a priority after finance secretary John Swinney announced last month that the target of new apprenticeship starts would be increased from 25,000 per year to 30,000 by 2020.
"In partnership with local government, colleges, Skills Development Scotland and others, we will allocate a further pound;16.6 million in 2015-16 to expand apprenticeship opportunities, establish new regional employment partnerships, and support employers to engage with and employ young people to ensure that they have access to job-relevant learning," Swinney says.
This is part of a wider pattern, with Sir Ian Wood's Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce stating earlier this year that "apprenticeships.should once again become one of Scotland's main training pathways into employment opportunities".
SDS has reacted already, establishing pilot schemes this term for foundation apprenticeships (for learners still at school) and degree-level advanced apprenticeships. TESS reported earlier this year that about 80 secondary school pupils from West Lothian and Fife were completing elements of apprenticeships in school or on their local college campuses ("Working together to engineer life chances", News focus, 5 September).
Meanwhile, the University of the Highlands and Islands and the University of Strathclyde have also set up a pilot scheme for advanced apprenticeships, with industry involvement through internship and placement opportunities.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that SDS was so keen to use last week's campaign to promote the scheme in schools.
Inevitably, one of the biggest challenges is ensuring parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes. Prejudice against skills-based learning persists despite the fact that apprenticeships have the advantage of high retention rates after training and payment for the duration of the scheme.
An SDS survey in 2012 revealed that 92 per cent of modern apprentices who completed the programme were in work six months later, and 70 per cent of those were with the same employer (Modern Apprenticeship Outcomes 2012: bit.lySDSpoll).
"It's important that young people have an awareness of all the options out there for them when they start thinking about subject choices and life beyond school," says Katie Hutton, the organisation's depute director of national training programmes. "Modern apprenticeships are a fantastic option as they offer a career pathway across so many industries and the chance for young people to secure a job, training and a wage."
Last week's campaign, she adds, gave pupils the chance to gain insight into the drive and determination they would need to succeed as a modern apprentice and the huge variety of opportunities the programme offers. They were also able to find out directly from employers about career options in their area and how those jobs contribute to the local economy.
"We hear from employers year-round about their desire to build closer links with schools in their local areas, and the huge amount of activity in schools across Scotland offers a chance to make those connections the length and breadth of the country," Hutton says.
Events highlighting the benefits of modern apprenticeships took place in more than 250 schools. Pupils, mostly from S3, participated in a variety of activities, and heard from employers and apprentices about their experiences and the advantages of the scheme.
`Life after school'
One school that took part was Kirkintilloch High in East Dunbartonshire. It was visited by a former pupil who is now a modern apprentice and local businesses that employ apprentices, including the council and insurance provider Aviva. Headteacher Edward Muir says that the aim of the sessions was to prepare young people for "life after school", ensuring that they could "play their part in the world of work".
The school has a number of the pupils from deprived backgrounds, so another goal was to "raise aspirations". Muir adds: "The opportunity to engage with real people from the world of work is one that will really equip our young people with the set of skills they need.
"The Wood Commission report promotes parity between the academic routes and vocational learning, and we have been at the forefront of that development. We need to get away from the notion that work-based learning is only for those of lower ability."
Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, agrees. "I think there is a long way to go before we can be confident that parents know enough about the options and benefits," she says. "We have spent very many years measuring the success of schools - and by implication of young people - by the number of Highers achieved at which grade, and by how many go on to university."
This obsession with the academic side of education cannot be undone in a few months, she says. Instead it will take "a great deal of effort to shift thinking at home, in schools and elsewhere as to the relative value of the different routes a young person can take".
But as modern apprenticeships expand to meet government targets and the expectations of the Wood Commission, improving public perception of vocational learning is not the only challenge ahead. Getting employers to sign up to the scheme in large enough numbers - and particularly getting smaller and medium-sized businesses involved - is also proving difficult.
Hutton insists that businesses are on board with the scheme. "Employers recognise the benefits that modern apprenticeships can bring to their business," she says. "Skills Development Scotland has employer engagement staff who work with businesses of all sizes year-round to identify and help them meet their skills needs, including supporting them to get involved in the modern apprenticeship programme." She adds that research into how to meet the target of 30,000 apprenticeship starts per year is under way.
Establishing a gold standard
Andrew Palmer, the CBI's regional director for Scotland, stresses that vocational training should "never be seen as second best and should be widely promoted to our young people". He adds: "Modern apprenticeships are an essential route to tackling youth unemployment and narrowing the growing skills gap we face in Scotland and the rest of the UK.
"We need a gold-standard system and ensuring that apprenticeships are more responsive to business needs is the right way to achieve this. If we get things right today then we can be more confident of delivering a world-class apprenticeship system in the years ahead."
However, Palmer cautions: "We must find a way to encourage smaller firms to get more involved - those that can sometimes be put off by real or perceived time and financial costs."
SDS research shows the benefits to businesses that do participate. In a 2012 survey, 68 per cent of employers offering modern apprenticeships reported improved productivity and 66 per cent reported improved staff morale (Modern Apprenticeship Employer Survey 2012).
And new industries are starting to recognise the value of the scheme: "Some industries, such as accountancy firms, are now starting to use apprenticeship programmes as an alternative to graduate entry as they have a chance to `grow their own' staff," Hutton says.
Businesses committed to developing their own staff? What a good idea. Hopefully it will catch on.
Putting apprenticeships centre stage
Scotland's Modern Apprenticeship Awards are now in their 13th year, and recognise the achievements of apprentices and employers at all levels. This year's winners are:
- Scotland's Modern Apprentice of the Year - Suzanne Birney, design and draughting apprentice, Doosan Babcock.
- Level 2 Apprentice of the Year - Duncan Shaw, apprentice chef, Sylvesters Restaurant.
- Level 3 Apprentice of the Year - Suzanne Birney.
- Higher Level Apprentice of the Year - Scott MacDonald, engineering apprentice, FMC Technologies.
- Apprentice Ambassador of the Year - Kelsey Whyte, former joinery apprentice, Havelock Europa.
- Public Sector Employer of the Year - Glasgow City Council Commonwealth Apprenticeship Initiative.
- Micro Employer of the Year - Zest, St Andrews.
- SME Employer of the Year - J K Thomson.
- Large Employer of the Year - LifeScan Scotland.
- Macro Employer of the Year - Scottish Power.