As members of the 18 member leadership team of the National Society of Apprentices (NAoA), Sean and Sarah will lead and represent the society for the next year. They have already travelled extensively in the UK, attending events to hear what local groups of apprentices say and to lobby employers, politicians and training providers. They have also travelled to Norway and Finland to learn about apprentices in those countries.
The National Society of Apprentices (NSoA), which was formally launched in 2014, represents over 150,000 apprentices from across all sectors and industries throughout the UK and works with upwards of 120 training providers and employers.
Sean and Sarah’s journey from class representatives to College representatives, right to the top table of the national apprentice representative body means they are flying the flag for apprentices - and not just local apprentices but for apprentices all over the UK.
The NSoA is a society for apprentices, run and paid for by apprentices. It is affiliated to the influential National Union of Students (NUS), which represents students across the whole of the UK. The NUS and the Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI) represents the interests of around 200,000 students in Northern Ireland and campaigns on their behalf in many different fields such as student hardship, health, prejudice and accommodation.
Sean’s own experience as an apprentice activist was triggered by the realisation that not all apprentices get the recognition they deserved or the training they thought they would get when they signed on for an apprenticeship.
Sarah said that while their own personal experience as apprentices has been positive, others are not so lucky.
“Some apprentices don’t get proper training, others have to go to college on their day off and don’t get paid. This isn’t hat an apprenticeship should be like.”
Sean added: “Unfortunately, not all employers value the contribution apprentices can make to the success of their business and some even look on apprentices as a cheap form of labour. Thankfully, that’s changing as more and more employers recognise the added value that apprentices can bring to their business with fresh ideas and, through their training in College, how they can also help keep the business up to date with changes in technology and legislation.
“Before NSoA was launched, apprentices had no one to speak up for them if they felt they were being unfairly treated either the workplace or college. NSoA is working to change that and, because it is part of the larger student movement, it can be quite influential.”
Sean and Sarah have already enjoyed some success at national level with motions they jointly proposed at the recent NUS-USI national conference being carried. Small steps they know but still moving in the right direction to raise awareness about important issues and help change attitudes towards apprentices and apprenticeships.
Sarah explained: Last year over 6,000 young people started an apprenticeship in Northern Ireland but although apprentices are an important part of the student movement, the ‘student’ experience of an apprentice can be very different from other FE students so it’s important that our voices are heard.”
The first motion passed at Conference was ‘Apprentices belong in the student movement, let’s make them feel welcome’. As a result of Sarah and Sean’s representation, the NUS-USI FE committee is to reserve one space specifically for an apprentice and at least 50% of NUS-USI FE events are be held at weekend to be make them more accessible to apprentices who are working during the week.
The second motion passed was to encourage a closer working relationship between NUS-USI and NSoA to improve conditions for apprentices in Northern Ireland by focusing on the key issues like pay, training and transport.
Sarah has also enjoyed some success in her own workplace where she is the only female motor vehicle apprentice with the Ballymena Peugeot dealer. As a result of her representation to her employer, the toilet facilities have been improved.
Sarah has recently been selected as a NSoA representative to the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions (OBESSU), a working group on vocational education meaning, which means she will be representing apprentices and vocational learners at a European level.
Being part of the NSoA leadership team has been a steep learning curve for Sean and Sarah. It has made them aware of the effectiveness of lobbying to bring about change in the workplace and they would have no hesitation encouraging other young people to get involved.
“When we first went to the meetings, I didn’ speak up – in fact, if I wanted to make a point, I would have whispered it to Sean and he would have said it for me. Now speaking in public doesn’t bother me at all.
An unexpected bonus of their involvement with NSoA is the way it has brought them into contact with so many people from a wide cross section of the community. This in turn has helped change, not only their own attitudes but their attitudes of their families and close friends.
Coming from either side of Northern Ireland’s traditional community divide, Sean and Sarah admitted that they now have a much better understanding of and respect for people from backgrounds different to their own.
Stephen McCartney Head of Student Services at Northern Regional College, said Sarah and Sean are to be congratulated on their commitment to work on behalf of other apprentices.
“They have enthusiastically embraced the different opportunities that come their way as a result of being part of the national leadership team of NSoA. They are really committed and it’s great to see how they’ve grown in confidence. The skills developed through their involvement will certainly help their future professional development and I wish them every success.”
Northern Regional College offers Motor Vehicle – Training/Apprenticeship programmes at Ballymena, Magherafelt and Newtownabbey. Eighteen week leisure courses in Motor Vehicle Maintenance and Modification courses are also available at Ballymena, Newtownabbey, Magherafelt and Coleraine campuses.