THE North East Apprenticeship Company (NEAC) was set up last year to help cut youth unemployment and combat the region's skills shortage.
It organises and oversees the placement, mentoring and training of apprentices, which it then supports by subsidising 15% of the cost of employing them.
Launched by Gateshead Council and Gateshead College as an arms length organisation, NEAC received £25,000 in seed funding, as well as £540,000 from the Learning and Skills Council.
After a successful first year – NEAC now helps to create around five apprenticeship placements per week – the firm is to become a self-funding operation which generates funding from deals with training bodies and employers.
The firm is working flat out to help service the increased demand for apprentices following the Government’s increased commitment to the cause.
While the Government has significantly reduced it spending in many areas, its determination to invest in workplace training is underlined by its pledge to increase funding for apprenticeships by 50% – a move which is expected to result in the recruitment of 75,000 new apprentices by 2014.
There is also expected to be a greater emphasis on adult apprenticeships following a £605m investment, which is aimed at bridging the skills gap in areas such as manufacturing.
As the managing director of NEAC Paul Champion’s job to ensure that his organisation remains at the forefront of the apprenticeship programme and that it is meeting the needs of potential apprentices, employers and training providers.
The task is particularly pertinent to Champion after he completed his own apprenticeship as a moulder and coremaker at Charles Taylor and Sons Iron Foundry in South Shields back in 1980.
He said: “My first job was as an apprentice at an iron foundry in South Shields at the age of 18.
“There were these old guys working there that had at been with the company for about 30 to 40 years, but they were all willing to take time out to show me the ropes.
“I mean, I got the odd joke played on me, such as being sent out for long weights and a double-edged wedge, but it was all in good spirit.
“I remember leaving school on the Friday and starting work on the Monday, it was certainly a steep learning curve, but a great introduction to working life.”
Growing up in one of South Shields’ less-than-affluent areas, Champion was introduced to the importance of work at an early age, a lesson that would help him get ahead during his apprenticeship.
“My mother and father split up when I was young, so I spent much of my time at my grandparent’s house,” he said “My grandfather was a labourer on the docks, while my nanna was a toilet cleaner.
“They both provided me with a really strong work ethic and the belief that I would be able to make my way in the world with the help of good old-fashioned hard work.
“You had to have that belief working at Charles Taylor’s, as the place was less than safe or hygienic.
“I remember that we used to wash our hands before lunchtime in something called the bosh, which was basically a tank full of dirty water, which probably had rats running through it.
“Then we’d sit amongst the squalor to have our lunch. There was a canteen but we would rather eat where we worked.
“Although I was much younger than everybody there, I nevertheless felt part of a team, which was really important to me.
“Growing up I had been part of rugby and football teams, so working with others was vital to me.
“I was never that academically gifted, so being able to work in a group and pass around different ideas was the only way I knew how to get things done.”
It was during this time that Champion began to appreciate the value of mentoring and support, particularly during times of hardship.
He said: “The early 1980s recession saw the factory’s workforce shrink considerably. However, I was still supported through my training by the managing director of the firm, who actually paid me out of his own pocket, despite being worried about the short-term future of the business.
“It was during this time that I started to have an appreciation for the bigger picture. If we didn’t have enough work coming in then people couldn’t get paid.
“It was a harsh lesson for someone so young, but one that certainly helped to give me have a strong sense of perspective.”
With a lack of work at the foundry, Champion found himself faced with a number of training opportunities, and underwent a secondment within the firm’s technical management team.
However, his choice of role was very much dependant on one thing.
He said: “To me, it was always important to have a briefcase. I remember my dad having one in his room when I was really young. I used to look at it and think to myself, ‘I’ll be using that when I’m older’.
“When I was given the opportunity to experience a management role I jumped at the chance as I knew it would let me carry around a briefcase without looking daft.
“I mainly used it to carry around my sandwiches and the odd bottle of milk, but I still felt as though I had made it.”
With more and more of the firm’s market being passed over to areas such as India and Brazil and ongoing uncertainty at the foundry, Champion left to start up his own printing company, which made business cards and party invitations.
At the same time, he launched his own personal training and coaching business, which would eventually fund his studies at South Tyneside College and allow him to study the GCSEs that passed him by as a result of his early introduction to working life.
On completion of his studies he managed to secure a job as sports development officer at Gateshead Council, which then allowed him to complete a spots studies degree at Northumbria University.
He said: “During my time at Gateshead Council I organised the summer sports schools, recruited staff, booked coaches and facilities.
“I then moved on to seeking funding through the Single Regeneration Budget and developing and managing the Sports Development Outreach Programme across Gateshead.
“It was great to be inspiring so many people through sport, as it was something I was passionate about.”
With a number of the council’s sports contracts coming to an end, Champion successfully applied for a regional manager position at crime reduction charity Nacro.
The charity works with some the most disadvantaged people, offenders and those at risk of offending, to help them find positive alternatives to crime and to achieve their full potential in society.
Champion said: “The work that Nacro did in the North East was all about building up respect among these young offenders.
“Although young people get a hard time in this country, the fact is that most don’t want to re-offend.
“Back then, many of the people that worked for Nacro would have been known as ‘hard men’, now they are probably known as community leaders.
“The youngsters looked up to these people and it was through their guidance that we tried to foster a sense of respect and pride in their community.
“Some of the youngsters went on to pursue careers as lifeguards or personal trainers, which was really satisfying for me in light of their troubled backgrounds.”
With a determination to continue improving the prospects of underprivileged people in the region, Champion then took on the role of director at North East firm B-Skill, which works with employers to provide training for their existing staff, particularly in lesser paid roles such as cleaning and manual handling.
Champion said: “At B-Skill, we built up from a small business to one that was providing training on a national business.
“Most of the time we were working with people who had left school 30 or 40 years ago and didn’t have a qualification to speak of but needed to find training because of changes to their role.
“It was really satisfying to be able to improve the skills of these people, who, like me, had by-passed the education system at an early age.”
Now at NEAC, Champion is determined to use the apprenticeship programme to provide job opportunities for youngsters in the region who, as a result of the economic downturn, face an uphill struggle in the search for work.
He said: “We thought we’d be quiet leading up to Christmas but were been really busy, and continue to be.
“Employers in the region seem to be backing apprenticeships as a way of solving their own recruitment problems as well as helping to support the next generation of workers.”
NEAC is also throwing its weight behind The Journal’s 100 Apprentices in 100 Days Campaign, which has already succeeded in helping to find positions for over 260 apprentices, with the new target now raised to 500 in 100 Days.
Champion said: “The campaign has already proven hugely successful and we would urge other employers to consider whether they could benefit from an apprentice.
“We have a long way to go to where we need to be in terms of the number of apprentices we have in this country, but we are determined to help the programme reach its full potential.”
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Raval on Gateshead Quays
Who or what makes you laugh?
What’s your favourite book?
Learning to Labour – Paul Willis
What’s your favourite film?
Dude, Where’s My Car
What was the last album you bought?
The Streets – Computers and Blues
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
Get up now or you’re going to be late
What’s your greatest fear?
Failure to provide for the next generation
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Find good business partners
Worst business advice?
Don’t worry about it
What’s your poison?
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£33.15 as an apprentice at an iron foundry
How do you keep fit?
Visiting the gym
What’s your most irritating habit?
Which historical or fictional character do you most admire?
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Johnny Wilkinson, Stephen Fry, Steve Jobs, Ranulph Fiennes
How would you like to be remembered?
For ensuring that young people have a chance, and sometimes a second chance to find their place. And promoting the concept that all of society has a shared responsibility for this.
North East Apprenticeship Company, February 2010 - present
B-Skill, 2001 - February 2010
Gateshead Council, 1994-1999
Sports development officer
Printing Co., 1989-1994
Charles Taylor and Sons, 1980-1989
Northumbria University 1998-2000
Loughborough University 1996-1998
South Tyneside College 1992-1996
Mortimer Comprehensive (South Shields) 1970-1980