BRENDA McLEISH still recoils at the lingering smell of grease from her days working in a pizza shop.

If she wanted glamour, the local takeaway wasn’t the place to find it.

But it was work and, allied to further spells in McDonald’s and a hospital, was an important stepping stone in her career.

Her first real breakthrough came via an administration role at East Durham College, which paved the way for further promotions in the education sector and acted as the gateway to the job she holds today.

As chief executive of training provider Learning Curve Group, Brenda has helped the business grow from 40 full-time employees to more than 300.

It supports around 120,000 learners every year through the materials it creates and its network of training facilities and skills centres in the North-East and Yorkshire, which are complemented by relationships with thousands of employers.

But things are about to get bigger for Learning Curve, which has seen turnover rise from £1m to more than £30m in the past decade.

The Bishop Auckland-based organisation has started work on new 16,000sq ft headquarters on DurhamGate, near Spennymoor, which officials say will provide space to create scores of jobs.

It is also pressing ahead with an Apprenticeship Academy, which will see around 20 people given the chance to build their skills across areas such as customer service, sales, data analysis, design, IT and accounting.

It is, says Brenda, part of a campaign to highlight the importance of traineeships and, in places, remove a mistaken stereotype that they are solely for school-leavers or those deemed not to have hit the right level for university.

She said: “There is this misnomer that an apprentice is a young lad in a boiler suit with a spanner in his hand, but that isn’t true.

“Anyone can be an apprentice.

“We need to change this impression some people have that apprenticeships are for those that haven’t perhaps done as well as school.

“We must also remember the debt that comes with a university place, which is something a lot of people and families cannot afford.

“Apprenticeships offer a good qualification without getting saddled with debt.

“With that in mind, we are really excited about the academy, which will come in September.

“At the end of their time, learners will be given the opportunity to stay or find an opportunity elsewhere with the skills they have developed.

“On top of this, we’ll have new state-of-the-art facilities for staff in our new development, which will be fantastic for them.”

However, Brenda admits the sector is suffering from uncertainty.

The new Apprenticeship Levy, rolled out by the Government last year, is applicable to businesses with an annual wage bill of more than £3m, which can then draw on the fund to finance training.

However, many companies and organisations say they have still to get their heads around its introduction.

Brenda, who is a member of a series of boards and network steering committees, including the Tees Valley Combined Authority Business Leadership Group, acknowledges such, though she says Learning Curve is doing all it can to help.

She added: “A lot of people are doing nothing because they don’t really know what to do.

“Larger businesses paying the levy are finding it really confusing.

“That’s why we are getting out to as many operators as possible to try and explain what the levy really means to them and how they can benefit.”