GALLERY: Apprenticeships at Steve Willis: ‘The way forward for young people’

Gas and plumbing apprentices with teachers Kevin Smith and Darren Paine. Picture: Derek Martin
Gas and plumbing apprentices with teachers Kevin Smith and Darren Paine. Picture: Derek Martin

With Brexit on the horizon, talks of apprenticeship and skills shortage in the country is making headlines in the national media.

And with construction services company Carillion’s collapse sparking shock last week, I was keen to find out if there was a shortage in our district, and if so, how were we trying to combat the problem.

The amount of apprentices we have at the moment is higher than ever – we are oversubscribed.

Founder Steve Willis

I paid Steve Willis Training Centres in Burgess Hill a visit.

The centre in Sheddingdean Industrial Estate, Marchants Way, offers gas, electrical and plumbing apprenticeships and short courses.

Steve, 54, set up the company 17 years ago after managing a gas and electrical programme at Crawley College for 13 years.

“I decided to go it alone and I took a gamble,” he told me.

It was clear his gamble had paid off. The centre is currently home to 300 apprentices.

Due to Steve’s success, he was able to open another centre in Portchester, near Portsmouth.

“We have people travelling far to us because they want to do our programmes, which is great,” he said.

“The amount of apprentices we have at the moment is higher than ever – we are oversubscribed. We are attracting more women to our programme too.

“We also have people coming back to us with their apprentices. We are where we are because we have been very successful.

“We hold a graduation ceremony at The Kings Centre in Burgess Hill every year, which is a true highlight.”

Steve was born in Burgess Hill. His two daughters, Nicola, 24, and Colleen, 20, also work in the business.

PR coordinator Amanda Green, who took me around the centre, told me apprenticeships seemed to be ‘flourishing’ in the town.

“We have lots of people coming to our open days and we go to schools to talk about our programme. A modern apprenticeship seems to be the way forward for young people,” she said.

“The graduation ceremony is the highlight of the year for us. To see apprentices, their families and employees come down – it is rewarding to watch.

“And to see these young people come to us straight from school and when they leave they are ready to go out and work – and they are getting a great career out of it.”

The centre offers hazardous situations in set-up rooms so apprentices can learn in real-life settings and complete assessments. Classes range from 12 to 18 apprentices.

On my visit I was welcomed by Kevin Smith, curriculum leader for gas and plumbing, who was teaching his apprentices.

A previous British Gas engineer, who ran his own plumbing and heating company, he decided he wanted to use his experience to teach others.

“I really enjoy it,” he told me.

“It can be challenging but you can expect that working with young people. For me the rewards are fantastic.

“Every year we have a graduation evening and that is when I get my biggest buzz – when we give them their certificates.

“You strike up a bond with these kids, sometimes you are not just their tutor or trainer, but you are their mother, father, or brother.

“One thing I think we are really good at here is we try to make the programmes fun while learning, which helps make them want to come back and learn.

“We have very structured courses here and we are teaching them how to do things properly.”

Kevin, 53, who has worked at the centre for seven years, travels up from Eastbourne to work at the centre five days a week. He has been doing the trade since he was 16.

“Without apprenticeships the country doesn’t grow, we are going to be in a situation where if we don’t continue to provide them, we are going to have a skills shortage,” he added.

I chatted to some of Kevin’s students. Tayler O’Brien, 18, who travels to the centre from Brighton, said: “Kevin is a really good teacher. I have learned a lot, including life skills, to go out into the working world.

“I look forward to coming in. My goal is to have my own company and to be as good and successful as Kevin.”

Luke Lashley, 19, who lives in Burgess Hill, started his gas apprenticeship in September last year.

“I went to an open day here and found it really interesting,” he said.

“I got through the exams and got told I could start here and I haven’t looked back. It is going really well so far.”

Jordan Pryor, 18, who lives in Saltdean, Brighton, said he wanted to do an apprenticeship at the centre because he had a lot of recommendations from people.

“I have learned a lot so far, not just in the skill but life skills too, my goal is to have a successful company,” he said.

During my visit at the centre I also chatted to lecturer Darren Paine, 48, who was teaching his plumbing class.

He has been teaching at the centre for 17 years. He started in the trade at aged 16 and ran his own company from the age of 21.

“I was brought into teaching by my old teacher who I kept in touch with and I have never looked back since,” he told me.

“I really enjoy teaching, it is very rewarding. When your students come up to you and shake your hand at the end of their course, it is a rewarding feeling. Even at the end of each day when they say thank you.

“Apprenticeships are vitally important, with the current situation with Brexit, there is going to be a skills shortage.

“I believe the Government should start looking at it a bit more, as there is going to be an even bigger shortage.

“Apprenticeships are a great option and the way forward for young people, they are vital for the economy and future.”

Sam Curtis, 17, is completing a Level 2 apprenticeship in plumbing and heating. Once he finishes he plans on doing a Level 3 apprenticeship in gas.

“I realised I was more interested in hands-on work, rather than sitting on a computer,” he told me.

“This came up and I thought I would give it a go. I am really enjoying it and hopefully I will work for myself one day.”

Owen Scerri, 18, who lives in Hove, said he also hopes to run his own company one day.

“I really enjoy it and look forward to coming in. My goal is to be successful,” he added.

As specialists in building engineering services, Steve Willis Training Centres says its apprenticeships offer the ‘perfect way to learn a trade’ – a mix of on the job training with an employer and practical and classroom sessions.

With no big university debt to fear about, you can see why an apprenticeship would be attractive to young people these days.

And at Steve Willis apprentices gain an industry recognised qualification and walk out with functional skills in English, Maths and ICT.

To find out more about Steve Willis Training Centres email or call 01444 870860.

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