Bad exam results meant Emily Dumelow had to take stock of her life. So she became an apprentice.
There is still a tendency to sneer at modern apprenticeships.
Cheap labour, used for long hours with no certainty of a job at the end of it, is often the claim.
It’s a throwback to the pre-recession days when the be-all-and-end-all for youngsters was A-levels followed by university.
It seemed that was the only way to get on in life.
If you did not follow that path you might as well have written yourself off at 17, regardless of whether you were suited to further education or not.
Since 2010 the Cameron-led government has thrown billions at promoting a resurgence in apprenticeships in a bid to slash the youth unemployment figures, a policy which is perhaps beginning to show some some green shoots.
Emily Dumelow is proof that the system can work – proof that an apprenticeship can not only lead to a proper job, but one which is fulfilling and one which she loves.
A little more than three years ago she was at her lowest ebb.
It was August results day and Emily was facing the inevitable as she unveiled the outcome of her first year’s A-level exams.
‘I knew when I sat them that I’d done badly. Yes, I’d passed, but only by the skin of my teeth. I was completely gutted, but not surprised,’ she says.
What is surprising is that she found herself in that position – and this is where there’s a lesson for all youngsters hovering around one of the biggest decisions of their young lives.
Confident but by no means arrogant, Emily exudes charm... and a steely determination to succeed.
And there’s an alluring honesty about her.
‘I was lucky. I was quite clever and did very well at school,’ adds the former Miltoncross School pupil.
‘I loved school, didn’t have to try too hard and ended up with very good GCSE results.
‘But I went on to Portsmouth College, not because I wanted to but because everyone else did. At the time I couldn’t see any other way.’
But she struggled at college. ‘I found it extrememly difficult, the work was hard and I lost interest which came hard after loving school so much.’
On the day she got those results, Emily realised she’d reached a turning point.
‘I thought either I’d have to retake my first year and settle for rubbish results again, or do something else.
‘I decided on the latter because I knew I could do better at something else. So I went home, got straight on the computer and started looking for apprenticeships.’
She went on to the PETA website, the training company based at North Harbour, Portsmouth, and up popped ‘pages and pages of them’.
She adds: ‘Of all the hundreds of apprenticeships on offer, one really stood out – an apprenticeship in business administration at the Kings Theatre, Southsea.
‘I’d studied drama at Miltoncross and loved it. I wanted to learn about business and I thought this would be the perfect fit.’
But there was one problem.
‘I came across it after 6pm on results day. The cut-off point was 6pm that day. I remember my mum telling me there was no point applying because I’d missed the deadline, but I thought ‘‘what have I got to lose. If I send it in and they don’t accept it, at least I will have tried’’.’
So she pressed the button and PETA did accept it.
Three days later she was interviewed and by the end of the next week she was facing her potential new boss, Sandra Smith, being grilled about her suitability for a role in public relations, media handling and dealing with large groups of theatre visitors at Portsmouth’s most historic working theatre.
‘It was crazy,’ says Emily, 20.
‘I’d gone from having nothing and being on the point of despair and not knowing what to do with my life, to having a job I could only have dreamed about.’
The funding for her year-long position came jointly from the Kings and PETA.
‘Of course, you start at the very bottom and the pay wasn’t fantastic, so I kept up a waitressing job I had in the cafe at the Royal Marine Barracks.
‘I remember my college friends saying ‘‘Emily, what have you done? You’re hardly earning anything’’. But I had a job and they were earning nothing.’
Emily impressed during that year, a year in which she also studied for business qualifications.
‘I was lucky because towards the end of the year a more senior position came up, I went for it and got it.’
Three years on she feels part of the furniture in the theatre, which is going through something of a renaissance. Audiences are turning out in bigger numbers to see a wider variety of entertainment ranging from top-drawer comedians and celebrity speakers to the traditional fare of panto, touring productions and leading amateur companies.
Emily says: ‘I’m very happy. Looking back, it shows that my instinct to leave college and go for that apprenticeship was exactly the right thing for me to do – and could be for others.’
Culture of apprenticeships
Youth unemployment has proved a chronic problem for Britain’s policy-makers, with about one in five young people aged 16-24 out of work.
The government is pinning its hopes on high-quality vocational training that leads directly to a job and boosts Britain’s ability to compete on a global scale.
There is a growing movement in education circles which believes that as many young people should go on to apprenticeships after leaving school as they do A-levels.
Some of the most successful economies, including Germany and Switzerland, have focused on vocational learning routes rather than a classroom-based approach.
But questions remain over whether Britain can adapt to a vocational route with teenagers simply losing interest or struggling with the hours they are expected to work.
By contrast, Germany’s strong apprenticeship culture and relatively low youth unemployment rate of 8.1pc stems from employers targeting school pupils from an early age.
Engineering giant Siemens currently employs about 7,000 apprentices in Germany. The company advertises its scheme to school-leavers, giving them a real choice between vocational training and university degrees.
Completion rates are high, with 86 per cent receiving a permanent contract at the end of training