The Welsh Secretary says that driving a lorry for the family firm helped put him on the road to success as he called for more on-the-job training for school leavers.
David TC Davies MP told business leaders in North Wales that past governments got it “completely wrong” when they turned their backs on industrial and business apprenticeships to focus on encouraging the majority of young people to enrol on university degree courses.
Speaking at a meeting of the Wrexham Business Professionals group, he said apprenticeships offered an unparalleled opportunity for them to learn from those who are already running businesses.
According to Mr Davies, he opted to work for his family in their shipping company Burrow Heath Ltd in Newport instead of going to university.
He learned on the job in various departments, including at one point driving a lorry for two years, before he eventually entered politics.
Mr Davies also served in the Territorial Army and as a Special Constable before he became an MP, first being elected to the Monmouth seat in 2005.
The Wrexham Business Professionals group is made up of successful companies and skilled professionals working together to promote regional prosperity and shine a light on the enterprise and expertise that exists in the region.
Among those attending the breakfast meeting at Maesgwyn Hall, Wrexham, was Huw Jones, managing director of Ruthin-based civil engineering firm Jones Bros whose ongoing apprenticeship schemes have won plaudits nationwide.
Mr Jones was dumbfounded that the Welsh Government was not fully behind all hands-on skills based apprenticeships.
He said: “Our apprenticeship schemes are highly valued. We’ve been at the vanguard of quality training for decades. As a result, we benefit from a highly trained, committed workforce, some of whom have been with the company for many years.
“We have an academic apprenticeship scheme in partnership with Coleg Cambria and, in addition we have hands-on crafts based apprenticeships run out of our own training facility in Denbigh.”
He said the purpose-built training centre had enabled the firm to create tailored courses to its own specification, giving apprentices a wide variety of equipment to train on.
Over recent years their apprenticeship schemes had produced nearly 50 per cent of the company’s current workforce, with many senior managers having started out as apprentices or trainees.
But he said the Welsh Government gave short shrift to the more vocational programmes like those in Denbigh even though they were just as valuable to Jones Bros as degree or diploma courses.
Mr Jones said: “Last year First Minister Mark Drakeford said the government would continue to fund Level 3 NVQ courses but it was pulling funding support from Level 2 courses. But both are of value.
“I just cannot understand the thinking behind it. Level 2 is an important starting point for many of our trainees as they enter the world of work. Even though these courses may not be as academic, the trainees still have the potential to earn and input significantly to our local economy.”
The Welsh Secretary agreed that apprenticeships of all kinds should be highly valued and it was wrong to write off those who signed up for vocational schemes as simply being unacademic.
He said: “There is no one-size-fits-all path in education. I’m not against anyone going to university if it suits their career path but it is not the right thing for every school leaver.
“I myself didn’t go to university but it did not hold me back. I like many others still found success in other ways.”
He said: “I believe past governments got it completely wrong when they launched a mass campaign encouraging all school leavers to aim first and foremost for university. And those who still insist on this approach today are blind to the needs of our employers and society in general.
“No one should be considered a failure just because they may not have a degree or even the inclination to attend university.
“Further education and learning has many different routes which should all be nurtured. We should not compare vocational skills unfavourably against academia.
“Apprenticeships are as valuable a route to skills learning as any other form of study and they can be the starting point to an exciting career.
“Some of our greatest business leaders did not attend university but learned the ropes on the job, became innovators and inventors, and contributed enormously to our country’s economic growth.”
His sentiments were endorsed by Robin Jones, managing director of Wrexham family firm Jones Village Bakery which is on course to achieve record sales of £100 million this year from its operations at six bakeries in Minera and on Wrexham Industrial Estate.
Mr Jones also did not opt for university but attended night school and learned his family’s business from the bottom up.
He said: “We pride ourselves on employing local people with most of our managers having been trained in-house.
“Whether they are 18 or 48 we will train every new recruit in-house in the skills we need to ensure all our bakery products maintain the highest standards.”
The meeting was chaired by Ian Edwards, a leading member of Wrexham Business Professionals, who said: “We’re very grateful to the Secretary of State for Wales and Robin Jones for their illuminating presentations and their valuable insights.
“Their contributions provided much food for thought and the main takeaway is that the world of education needs to be more aligned with the needs of business and industry.”
It was a sentiment endorsed by fellow member Louise Harper added: “For many, gaining a university degree will continue to be the right path but for others vocational training and apprenticeships will provide a better route for everybody concerned.”