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Apprentices in a global pandemic - what this year will look like

2 January 2021

While postponing Apprentice Decorator of the Year in 2020 was a necessary decision, it wasn’t one we took lightly: we’ve been sponsoring the competition for more than 40 years, and we invest heavily in the next generation of apprentice decorators as the future of the industry. Although the competition couldn’t take place last year, we’re pleased to have still been able to host social media competitions for apprentices and catch up with 2019 Apprentice Decorator of the Year, Gatis Celmins, as well as silver and bronze medallists Lewis Metcalfe and Abi Johnson.

With a new nationwide lockdown coming into place in early January this year, it’s clear that apprentices across the UK are continuing to be impacted by the pandemic. We recently spoke to Mark Mitchell and Mo Turner, painting and decorating lecturers at Inverness College UHI – where Gatis carried out his apprenticeship – to find out what challenges the pandemic has presented for colleges and apprenticeships, and what the future looks set to hold for the industry.

What challenges did Inverness College UHI face in 2020?

When news first started to break about the virus, it seemed like an issue that was far removed from our part of the world – the general feeling among our apprentices to begin with was that it wouldn’t reach the Highlands. On an organisational level our top priority was of course finding ways to deal with the pandemic so we had staff meetings to discuss what was likely to happen in the event of a lockdown, but we never thought it would actually happen.

When we first went into lockdown back in March 2020, the biggest challenge was the loss of face-to-face teaching, which is a vital part of the apprentices’ training in painting and decorating. Most of the units we deliver feature a combination of theory and practical elements, so when lockdown came, we focussed on the theory as it was difficult for the apprentices to complete some elements of their practical work remotely. As soon as our campuses re-opened, our primary focus was ensuring that the apprentices completed the outstanding practical elements of the curriculum.

How did you communicate with apprentices while the college was closed?

We’ve always had really good lines of communication with our apprentices and like to keep in touch with all of our past and present students (with Gatis recently calling in to see us and borrow some trammels), which made this process much easier than it otherwise would have been. We have our own closed Facebook group where we post relevant information and check in with each other to make sure no one is struggling. This worked really well for keeping the apprentices engaged with us too, as we ran competitions where they could win things like brushes and t-shirts.

We’d also like to thank Crown Trade for running a social media competition for apprentices – a couple of Inverness College UHI students won and we know they were delighted to receive their Crown t-shirts!

What changes were put into place once the college could reopen?

Of course we made sure that we were following all government requirements and kept a close eye on these as further changes were implemented in order for the college to reopen, and we carried out workshop risk assessments to ensure appropriate measures were put in place for when the apprentices returned.

There’s lots of new signage around the college and you can’t go very far without passing a sanitising station now. All of our apprentices have adapted to the changes really well: no one complained about having to wear a mask. We did try to put a light-hearted spin on this new requirement, by wearing the most humorous masks we could find.

At first the apprentices struggled with the new social distancing protocols, but they did come to terms with its importance in order for face-to-face workshops to continue.

I’m so pleased that these protocols mean we can have face-to-face teaching again; there’s always a lot of positive energy in the workshops and our apprentices bring so much humour and colour into our lives. In spite of what they might think, we missed them all dearly during lockdown!

How do you think any time that has been missed will impact apprentices in the future?

I’m hopeful that this won’t have too big an impact on the apprentices in the long term. We’ve worked really hard to keep them engaged when we have had to move to remote, and similarly, when our campuses re-opened, we worked hard to prioritise the practical learning so they could catch up. Most teaching in college takes place during the first two years of an apprenticeship, so there’s scope to make up for lost classroom time in years three and four.

The feeling we have is that contractors will see a huge increase in their workloads, which is great but does also present challenges. It’s very difficult for employers to release apprentices to college when they’re so busy – we try to be as accommodating as we can but our ultimate priority is the apprentice welfare. I see this increase in work as a fantastic opportunity for greater apprentice recruitment in the future.

What are your expectations for teaching and apprenticeships in 2021?

Ever the optimists, we’re expecting to see more recruitment of apprentices after Easter and into summer and I’m looking forward to welcoming plenty of fresh faces into their first year. In August and September our main priority will be preparing our fourth year students for their end of apprenticeship Skills Test, which determines whether the apprentices can be classified as professional painters and decorators.

We’re also really hopeful that the Apprentice Decorator of the Year competition will be able to run this year. The students love the competition aspect of it, and we enjoy the social aspect of catching up with our colleagues from other colleges!