In conversation with…

In this interview F-Talk discusses apprenticeships with Mark Hughes, F. Ball Managing Director, and find out he is a huge fan – for more reason than one.

“I’m a big advocate of apprenticeships,” begins Mark, “which is something we’re trying to promote across the flooring industry. We offer training and apprenticeships to people who want to follow this route into industry.

“At F. Ball, we currently have five apprentices. They’re working within our engineering and marketing departments and the aim is for them to eventually work for us as full-time employees.”

As a person who has followed the apprenticeship path himself, Mark can certainly speak from an informed perspective, recounting his own experience: “After secondary school, I think my family expected me to stay on through sixth form and maybe go to university, but at 16 I didn’t want to do that. Following a careers option evening at school, I applied for and was offered a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at Foden Trucks; that was back in the mid 70s. The thing is, back then, apprenticeships were very thorough and gave you a good grounding.”

“I was drawn to the idea of working four days a week, while continuing my education by going to college on the other day.

“In considering the decision to go for an apprenticeship it was really a choice of either staying on in sixth-form to do ‘A’ levels and not getting paid, or continuing my education while learning about work. Decision made. Apprenticeships are a no-brainer for me – I’m a huge fan.”

“My apprenticeship at Foden was great,” he continues. “The company manufactured virtually everything in house so I got to experience all the different departments; working in the foundry, the machine shop, fitting and repair shops, as well as in maintenance, the drawing office and the quality control department. It was a priceless introduction to UK industry and provided me with valuable experience across many different facets of the business.

“Being in my late teens, I didn’t realise at the time just how valuable that sort of background knowledge was. At that age, it’s more about having a good time, joining the lads for a beer and playing football.”

As well as F. Ball’s apprenticeships, Mark is also proud of the company’s sponsorship – for the third consecutive year – of an engineering project at the local Westwood College.

“KMF is an engineering company in Stoke-on-Trent that says it’s very reliant on apprentices to fill its skills gap,” Mark explains. “They set up this project for all local colleges, setting an engineering challenge for a group of youngsters. This year there were 22 colleges involved, each needing a sponsor. We agreed to sponsor our local high school Westwood College – it’s all about teamwork for the students and a way to get them interested in engineering.”

But do apprenticeships still have any allure for young people, who have been sold the idea of further education – especially through university – as the ‘golden ticket’ to a good job and the rewards that it brings? What has good old-fashioned, get-your-hands-dirty industry got to offer?

“It depends on the person,” explains Mark. “It’s clear that today’s school-leavers have very raised expectations. Many students don’t want to get down on their knees and do floorlaying, they want to sit behind a desk and operate a computer.

“We’ve raised our technical levels and successive governments have opened more universities, giving students more access to them, which is great if that’s the path you want to follow.”

“But not every young person is academic or wants to attend university. Apprenticeships give these young people alternative opportunities. I truly believe that if you attract someone while they’re young, they will like the camaraderie in this industry; they’ll feel welcome and think there’s a future. Young people would probably feed off the traditional nature of the flooring sector rather than be put off by it.”