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Issue 14 - July 1973
Learn A Skill....
Not every town can boast an art gallery or a football ground, but without a local office of the Dept of Employment and Productivity a town is not a town. As anyone who has made a visit to the Labour Exchange will tell you, the characteristically drab interior of the building is relieved by a number of colourful posters. Jobs are few and badly paid and so is being on the dole. So the posters suggest that you do one of two things. You can either join the armed forces or else you can have a "second chance to learn a trade" at one of a number of government training centres. Not fancying Belfast, I decided to try my luck on a carpentry and joinery course.

Although I did not last the length of the course I learnt a number of things and the following is a brief cautionary tale based on my experience and research.

The framework for industrial training in this country was set out by the 1964 Industrial Training Act. According to the Central Office of Information, "the Government vocational training scheme, administered by the Dept of Employment, is intended to overcome shortages of skilled workers in industries of national importance." Thus there are now over 50 government training centres offering training in construction, engineering and other trades. Most of the courses last six months, some continuing "on the job" with an approved employer. A small but variable allowance is paid to trainees. In 1964 fewer than 1,000 were trained, compared with 14,500 in 1970. This "expansion" is held up as proof of the success of the scheme. However, when you consider that there are about half a million in full-time further education in this country, the amount spent on industrial training is a comparative drop in the ocean.

There is a need for people to be taught useful skills. Revolution or no revolution, you still need people who can make things. However, even in the context of our present society, there are a number of reasons why a GTC is not all that it could be.

The information booklet that you pick up at any labour exchange is out of date. It tells you that you can apply for training at age 18. In fact you must be 20½ to apply for building trades and 19¼ for all others. You will have to wait at least three to six months before starting the course, and in the south of England waiting lists extend up to two years.

This means that the 350,000-odd who leave school each year at the minimum leaving age of 16 cannot apply for one of these courses.

Apparently there is no upper age limit for applying for training, but I wonder how many over 40s or over 50s apply, and how reluctant the D of E would be to accept a man with only a few working years of his life left? Most trainees are in fact in their twenties and thirties.

As a large number of the unemployed in this country are either school-leavers with no skill and experience or old dogs who are not given the chance to learn new tricks, it seems that the present industrial training scheme can do little to "help" the unemployed.

Of course, almost no women are trained, but as none (are expected to) apply, this is never mentioned in blurb or statistics. (Only 16 women were trained in 1971.)

Apparently, "the courses are designed to enable people with no previous experience to train for work in a skilled trade in the shortest possible time," provided they have no "usable skill" already. It seems like a good idea and that's all it is.

At the beginning of a six months' course there is a three-week "assessment period" at the end of which you may be told that you are not suitable for training in the trade of your choice if your work is not considered up to an arbitrary standard. Can anyone with no previous experience expect to become proficient at using even the basic tools of a carpenter in three weeks? Consider the following facts for yourselves. Firstly, during the three weeks which I spent at Durham GTC four carpentry trainees left during their initial three weeks. Secondly, the successful trainees in this class of eight included an ex-French polisher, an ex-pattern maker, someone who had been working with shopfitters, someone sent from a rehabilitation centre (where the disabled and "workshy" can go on an eight-week course to find their aptitudes and learn how to look smart and get up in the morning) and at least two property-owning handymen ("I do all my own repairs"; "I put a roof on the garage" etc). It seems that previous experience is an almost essential prerequisite to success on a course which sets out to do too much in too little time and fails.

The strict 26-week schedule allows neither time to learn by the mistakes on which you are judged, nor scope for anything like a creative approach to learning what should be a skilled craft. I knew someone who was turned down because he wanted to go into boatbuilding instead of plain joinery. One instructor (£50 pw) disagreed with the whole system of teaching and was thinking of leaving. As he remarked: "There's lads as go out of here who can't even sharpen their own saw, and they're supposed to be craftsmen!"

The unfortunate truth is that every GTC is accountable to civil servants who must see that the taxpayers' money is not wasted. Therefore time and materials are scarce and quality is less important than quantity because it cannot be measured and used as proof of productivity. Our civil servants are satisfied when they see that there are now 16 trainee carpenters at Durham GTC where there were only two at the same time last year. They know little and care nothing as to what makes a good carpenter.

Of course, carpentry is not the only trade taught, but it is a good enough test case.

The industrial training centre at Langley Moor, County Durham looks like a factory and works like one. The accent is on production, not creativity. The product is skilled workers. The conditions are as near as possible to those in industry. This means that you have to clock in and out and if you are late you take a bollocking from one of the assistant office managers. If you miss a day or part of a day you must ring the centre or risk losing time (read money). You have half an hour (school) dinner break and two 10 minute tea breaks. The 10 minutes include getting to the canteen and back as well as queuing for your tea. It is against the rules to run while in the centre. If you are rude to anyone wearing a collar and tie he will write down your name and this will appear on the weekly report of your progress. Disciplinary action may be taken. You can get kicked out. The staff have a separate canteen. To leave the walled-in centre during the day you require a "pass-out" unless you prefer to risk a day's pay. To obtain a pass to cover 10 minutes of my lunch break I once spent half an hour arguing with the Chief Instructor. I eventually got one, but didn't bother again. The work schedule is tight and the chain of authority rigid; you have to do as you are told, quickly. Such are the conditions in industry for which you must be prepared.

All this brings us back to our original choice. Perhaps I should have joined the army? I turn the pages of the Sunday paper: "Here's the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to learn a skilled trade with a well-paid job when you've finished and every prospect of promotion to the top. For this alone it makes sense ..." etc etc. And you only have to be 15! Sounds fantastic, but wait a minute ... isn't the government training scheme specially designed to help "ex-servicemen" who cannot find work, and were there not two such in my class who obviously had not learnt a trade ...? Funny that!