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Apprenticed to the sea

Shipbuilding and marine engineering – supporting modern apprenticeships

Apprenticeships now combine direct employment and training by a company with attendance at college

Archie Smith, Chairman of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights Training and Education Committee, looks to the future.

Photo: Nick Bailey/Pendennis

The Worshipful Company of Shipwrights is a City Livery Company, and the earliest written references to its existence date from the thirteenth century. In 1782 the Company petitioned for and obtained the livery, becoming the 59th Livery Company of the City of London – and today the Company prides itself on being the principal maritime company in London, with naval architects and marine engineers, shipowners and shipbrokers, specialists in maritime law, banking and insurance, and officers of the Royal and Merchant navies.

The old world meets the new

The main functions of the Livery Companies are to promote their specific trades and to undertake charitable work. Their origins lie in guilds of craftsmen and merchants who established the standards of their trades, took on apprentices and ensured continuity of their professions. They also clubbed together, long before the days of pensions and insurance, to provide a safety net for widows and orphans, for the aged and infirm, and for members who had fallen on hard times. To this day the Shipwrights’ Company continues these traditions. It is a Livery Company that is restricted to those in the maritime profession, with a substantial programme of charitable and educational activities.

Apart from grants to meet its City and civic obligations, the Shipwrights’ charitable strategy focuses on supporting maritime and waterborne projects and activities, with particular emphasis on developing skills for individuals in engineering and naval architecture, and on sea training and experience for youth.

The Shipwrights’ involvement in apprenticeships is both historical and current, but both aspects are equally important and relevant today. Historically, of course, becoming an indentured apprentice was the key to learning a trade and gaining the right to trade freely under one’s own name. Apprenticeships are now administered in a different way and are conducted through direct employment by a company, training in a relevant trade and attendance at college in a planned programme that is closely monitored and tested. Apprenticeships have come and gone, in and out of fashion, but have continued throughout in the shipbuilding industry even as that has diminished. The Shipwrights’ Company administers the award of the Queen’s Silver Medal to the best apprentice of the year from shipyards across the country, but also has an active apprenticeship development programme.

The Queen’s Silver Medal

King George VI, Permanent Master of the Shipwrights’ Company, in 1944 instituted a Silver Medal to be awarded to the Shipyard Apprentice of the Year. Kenneth Wood was the first winner of the medal, and the Company was charged with the administration of the competition. This it has been doing ever since, and has added a Bronze Medal for the runner-up, and another Bronze Medal for the best craftsman, in memory of the late Derek Kimber OBE, Prime Warden, and a noted shipbuilder with a particular interest in apprentice training.

Today the scheme is run each year by calling for nominations from every known yard in the United Kingdom. The best are then selected by the Company to undertake a week’s course and evaluation at Hawkhirst on Kielder Water in Northumberland in September. A short list attends the Education and Charities Committee for interview in early December, at the end of which the winners are announced.

The winners, with their families, are invited to attend a meeting of the Court of the Company in January for ceremonial presentation of their medals. In 1995, the 50th anniversary of the competition, the medal winners and their families were invited to Buckingham Palace to receive their awards from HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Permanent Master. This privilege was enhanced by the presence of Kenneth Wood, the first King’s Medallist, who had become president of his own shipyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 2012 the Prime Warden, HRH The Prince of Wales, presented the medals to the winners and their families, in the presence of a large gathering of the Livery, at St James’s Palace.

The award of the medal is as important today as it was in 1944. The places on the course are keenly fought over and the experience for many is ‘life-changing’. Apprentices are taken out of their comfort zone and tested to a degree that many find very challenging but all find rewarding. Whether they win a prize or not it is a great experience that takes the best of the apprentices to a high level of achievement.

The Shipwrights apprenticeship scheme

Modern apprentices are recognised as an important part of this country’s technical development, and the Shipwrights have embarked on an ambitious programme to fund apprentices for smaller companies particularly in the marine leisure industry. The UK is a world leader in this industry and boasts a contribution of over £3 billion from boat building, marine outfitting and ancillary trades, an industry that is not well recognised or supported.

The objective of the scheme is to fully fund the cost of an apprentice for small companies that have not previously engaged one. The Shipwrights’ Company will pay for the apprentice and provide the support needed for formal college training for a year, after which experience shows that the value is recognised and the Company will continue the apprentice’s employment while the scheme continues to support the formal training.

In 2009, the Lymington-based Berthon Boat Company gained government funding to run an apprenticeship expansion pilot. Berthon developed a thriving apprenticeship model for 15 businesses (13 of them new to training) employing 60 new apprentices, and their commitment to training has gained them two national awards in recent years, recognising not only their scheme but also their effort in raising industry awareness to fill the real problem of the skills gap created by lack of apprenticeship investment and an ageing workforce.

Now government funding has ceased, Berthon has agreed to administer the Shipwrights scheme free of charge and to ensure that funding is directed primarily to smaller firms in the sector who are not training, offering advice and guidance to address the perceived problems of hiring and training youngsters with the necessary skills for the future.

Educational and training support

The Shipwrights also support a large number of individuals in their marine education and development through direct grants and bursaries to colleges and universities. The marine universities of Southampton, Newcastle and Glasgow in particular, but also smaller boat-building colleges that are focused on traditional boat building, receive grants for young men and women to achieve qualifications and complete training courses.

A specific objective of Shipwrights’ charitable giving is the focus on the individual and the gaining of specific skills and qualifications in the marine industry. It is important that we continue to do this, and while some of it is important for our heritage – such as the support for traditional rope making at Chatham dockyard and the funding of a shipwright on board the Glenlee, a historic ‘tall ship’ on the Clyde in Glasgow – it also provides a trade and a living for young people.

The future

The Shipwrights are committed to the development of our youth and our marine skills. We are an island that depends on marine industry for trade and for defence, and we have a thriving marine leisure industry that we should make the most of. There is a wealth of opportunity for our youth, and we need young people to recognise the value of a career in this sector. As the British merchant and naval fleets decline so does the feedstock for the broader maritime sector that includes maritime law, banking and insurance, naval architects and marine engineers, shipbrokers and shipowners. The Shipwrights’ Company plays its part through supporting much-neglected institutions such as the London Nautical School, where we are pleased to be able to fund a new teacher in nautical issues, and through the support of a lecture programme for apprentices in shipbuilding and marine engineering.

There is much to do – but a great opportunity awaits young people who find their future in our marine industry.