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Apprenticeship gave me chance my school didn't

The chief executive of one of Northern Ireland's leading energy companies has drawn on personal experience to call for companies to take on apprentices.

This newspaper is calling on companies to help it reach the target of creating 100 apprenticeships in 100 days by reminding business of the benefits of cultivating a loyal workforce through apprenticeships.

Peter Dixon of Phoenix Natural Gas began working life as a teenage apprentice gas fitter in depressed 1970s Liverpool.

He rose through the British Gas Corporation, which became British Gas, and moved to Northern Ireland in the 1990s to help bring gas here through Phoenix.

Mr Dixon became chief executive in 1999 - but it could have all been so different.

"I left Speke Comprehensive at age 16 with no qualifications. Surviving school itself had been my ambition," he said.

"Then I applied for a job and got an apprenticeship with the British Gas Corporation and started that at 16. I went through the apprenticeship and became technically qualified at 20. I continued to do further technical qualifications until I was 25."

When he contemplated the future at age 14 or 15, "I didn't think it held anything for me. There was 70% unemployment in the council estate where I lived and there were all the social problems that you would expect. There was very little opportunity for people.

"I didn't meet anyone who had a university education until I was in my 20s and we didn't have a sixth form at school.

"Less than 10% left with any kind of qualification and your prospects were joining the Army, the dole or an apprenticeship."

When he started his apprenticeship, he took two buses and a train - and sometimes the ferry - to work in Birkenhead, where he was paid £12.70 per week.

"My mum told me I needed to pay her housekeeping of £10 per week and then she took £1 off me for death money, which was like insurance," he said.

Phoenix Gas still runs apprenticeship and trainee schemes and Mr Dixon champions that route to success. "It might feel like you have to run the Grand National to get the same result as someone who's run the 100m but if you have come through an apprenticeship and rise to the top, there will be no job that you won't have done across the organisation and that gives you a richness of experience," he said.

He said apprenticeships were "essential" for companies.

"It helps give you a great mix of people. It allows you to find some real stars and some real diamonds of people who just make your business so much more robust."

People who joined at a young age often showed great loyalty, he said. "I have effectively been in the same business all my life. I could have left but I feel loyal to the industry and grateful that someone gave me a chance and have to give back as much as I have received.

"My whole life is due to the gas industry which gave me a job at 16 when others would have left me and walked on by."

His messages to companies: "If you can find someone who won't cost you a lot of money who has drive and determination to learn from your organisation and make the difference for the people you serve, then get them because they are low cost and could end up being the most valuable asset you have."