| 15.6°C Belfast

How path to the top often begins at the bottom rung of the ladder


Invest NI chief executive Alastair Hamilton has championed the role of apprenticeships

Invest NI chief executive Alastair Hamilton has championed the role of apprenticeships

John Harrison 07850360778

Apprentice Anthony Nugent with Douglas Hughes Developments in Newtownhamilton

Apprentice Anthony Nugent with Douglas Hughes Developments in Newtownhamilton

William Caughey is an apprentice with Egg IT on the Woodstock Road, Belfast

William Caughey is an apprentice with Egg IT on the Woodstock Road, Belfast

Jenny Waddell (centre) apprentice of Cut Both Ways in Rathfriland, with salon owner Shauna Donnan (left) and Anya Fairley

Jenny Waddell (centre) apprentice of Cut Both Ways in Rathfriland, with salon owner Shauna Donnan (left) and Anya Fairley

Invest NI chief executive Alastair Hamilton has championed the role of apprenticeships

He may be at the helm of the economic development agency which supports Northern Ireland's best-known businesses, but Alastair Hamilton, chief executive of Invest NI, is one of many people who started out as an apprentice.

Mr Hamilton is supporting the Belfast Telegraph's 100 Jobs in 100 Days campaign, which champions apprenticeships for young people.

Originally from the Coleraine area, he himself was an apprentice at BT before rising up through the ranks.

Mr Hamilton was appointed chief executive of Invest NI in April 2009 after holding positions within BT, including director of BT Solutions, managing director of BT major business in Ireland and UK director of BT Health.

In May 2007, he was seconded for one year to work as economic and business adviser to the First Minister of Northern Ireland, then DUP leader Ian Paisley.

Despite a family background in retail, Mr Hamilton revealed that he has always been passionate about design and indeed it was winning a design competition as a teenager which helped spark his interest in engineering.

"Whenever I was doing what were O-levels at school a new subject was being introduced called craft, technology and design (CDT) and it caught my interest," he said.

"I was always involved in practical things, working with my hands, engineering and the like.

"I completed the first year and I had a very enthusiastic teacher who brought my attention to a competition called Young Engineer for Britain. I applied and entered with a device I made which allowed a disabled person to use a telephone.

"I won the Northern Ireland and Scottish heat in 1981. At that time I was 16 and that gave me a real boost.

"When I was 17 I noticed that BT were advertising for an apprenticeship.

"At that time I believe there were between 200 to 300 people who applied for 16 places. Luckily I was successful and I started the apprenticeship in 1982 along with 15 others.

"I must say that those three years were great experience and I look back on my career in BT very fondly.

"We really did cover everything. On our work placement we covered all parts of business sales, marketing, block relief and we also completed qualifications at the Belfast Tech.

"We were also out doing practical things, as they say in the business; we were up poles and down holes, laying cables and the like.

"All the training was specialised to the company and what was very important was the presence of a mentor, or year tutor, Jimmy Simpson, who was always there encouraging us and driving us on as a group."

After completing the apprenticeship Mr Hamilton was placed as an engineer in Coleraine.

He added that focus on team building and leadership development had been pivotal to his own career.

"I remember we had three modules on leadership development and we would go to places like the Lake District. People ask when I got a bite for leadership and I do remember being set a certain challenge where we had to recover an article by abseiling into a quarry and I remember turning around and telling my team that we were going to win - I look back at those courses as a very important part of developing me and my career.

"The apprenticeship helped me to learn that working in teams, whether it was part of that group of 16, in work placement, or leadership development programmes, it is critical."

Mr Hamilton said that while he is a big supporter of apprenticeships, he appreciates the importance of university education.

"While I did not select university, I did study an HNC in electronics in my own time at night and my children are going to university.

"The problem is that there are lots of people and not enough jobs - to shortlist for jobs you need certain criteria and in almost every job now a third level qualification is needed as part of that criteria.

"I realise it would be difficult for me to repeat what I have achieved in my career in today's environment or to get to where I am now without a degree - because of the need for a degree, in a lot of jobs, it doesn't matter how good you are, you could get filtered out.

"What I think is very important about apprenticeships is that they help foster specific industry skills. In formal education, customisation is limited.

"At BT I was working with ganghands at one end - the hard graft - and then went through to sales and marketing. Because I had fitted the equipment, I was able to bring that through to my sales pitches - I knew the environment and the challenges that were out there. My sales experience was carried through to accounting and my accounting experience was carried into my managerial position.

"I had a real appreciation of all the roles across the whole organisation. I gathered knowledge and information as I moved up and I think that people respected that as they knew where I had come from and they knew that I had done all those jobs. A lot of young people go off to college, do a marketing course, go straight into a marketing job and never fully appreciate the breadth of other roles in the company they work for.

"However we are now talking to a lot of inward investors who are quite happy to take people coming out of our schools at GCSE or A-level, take them for three years in a project which may have college or university elements but allows the firm to tailor their education and customise it for their own business."

Mr Hamilton said that despite a strong focus on the IT sector, Northern Ireland's proud manufacturing and engineering heritage is still alive and well and added that apprenticeship schemes could only serve to make the sector stronger.

"We have a wealth of engineering and other firms which are still true to that heritage," he said.

"From aerospace to materials handling, to young guys brought up in a farm environment inventing, designing and making products and services to sell to the export market, there is a lot of potential and capability here.

"There are plenty of firms out there, both inward investors and indigenous companies, actively looking for young people and we at Invest NI are working with the Department for Employment and Learning and firms to create training packages customised to the individual needs of companies.

"It is absolutely critical that we have a high quality graduate output, and equally it is important that we train young people to help Northern Ireland once again become a powerhouse of advanced manufacturing - and for that, we need apprentices and apprenticeships."

'They learn how to work as a team'

Douglas Hughes Developments in Newtownhamilton, Co Armagh has trained 15 apprentices - with the help of Southern Regional College - over the last 20 years. Anthony Nugent, 20 from nearby Keady is one such person.

Douglas Hughes, managing director of the residential property construction business, said: "The majority of the apprentices that have started with us have fully completed all their training and progressed within our company."

The delivery model for apprenticeships had changed in that time, he said.

"We have found that the mix of college and industry training works well. The combination helps keep the apprentice motivated and challenged. They are learning a wide range of practical and life skills within the programme."

He said the advantages of apprenticeships was that it gave people the opportunity to put into practice what they have been taught in the classroom.

"They have the added advantage of having someone to look after them and guide them, sharing knowledge and experience. They also learn a variety of life skills on site, how to work with others, how to work as part of a team, how to be punctual and maintain good attendance. They also learn to respect others and take pride in their work."

'You can't beat the experience you get in a workplace'

William Caughey, 19, is from Carrickfergus in Co Antrim and studying a Level 3 ICT Practitioners apprenticeship at Belfast Met while learning the trade at Egg IT on Woodstock Road in Belfast. The business specialises in computer and laptop repairs.

William said: "Belfast Met has great links with local businesses and they were able to set this work placement up for me.

"Attending college a couple of days a week is great as I am able to learn new things and I have my tutor there to help me but nothing beats the hands on experience you get in the workplace.

"You never know what problem the computer may have until you open it up so I get involved with learning lots of new things and I enjoy the variety of tasks."

EGG IT owner Mark Allison said: "For a small business, taking apprentices gives you the opportunity to have an extra pair of hands but I also feel that I am investing in the future of the industry and passing on my many years of knowledge, experience and skills.

"I liaise with college staff a few times throughout the year and they really make the process of taking on apprentices very easy and always keep in touch throughout the whole time the student is employed with me."

'The apprentice gets the opportunity to gain on-the-job training and get paid'

Jenny Waddell, 19, is the first ever apprentice of Cut Both Ways, a hairdressing salon in Rathfriland, Co Down, owned by Anya Fairley and Shauna Donnan

Ms Fairley praised Southern Regional College for its support. "Cut Both Ways like that the college takes the operational needs of the salon environment into account when planning the training needs of the apprenticeship student. Directed training takes place on a Monday, which is a day the salon is closed.

"The student also benefits from this as they get paid for their directed training day."

She said having apprentices could benefit a company and an apprentice alike. "The apprentice gets the opportunity to gain 'on the job' training and get paid. The apprentice also gets all their fees paid for and paid to attend directed training to gain a recognised qualification.

"Apprentices help the company to continue to take on and employ skilled staff. The apprenticeship programme allows employers to develop the skills of unskilled people and offer them the incentive of paid employment."