ONE of the North-East’s largest employers of engineering apprentices has thrown its support behind our Foundation for Jobs campaign.

Graham Payne, managing director of Darchem Engineering, has agreed to become an ambassador for the project, which aims, among other targets, to create 100 additional apprenticeships for young people in the region this year.

Darchem presently employs 49 apprentices and aims to take on between 15 and 20 each year.

Foundation for Jobs, launched in January, is a joint initiative involving The Northern Echo and the Darlington Partnership, which includes Darlington Borough Council as well as public and private sector organisations.

As part of the ongoing support given by Mr Payne and the firm, based at Stillington, near Darlington, he is releasing two of his brightest young prospects to talk about their experiences at local schools.

James Watmore, 23, was named UK Nuclear Apprentice of the Year in March and is now undertaking higher education, supported by Darchem.

Libby Johnson, 17, is one of a growing band of young women entering the traditionally male-dominated engineering sector.

Mr Payne said: “It is part of their development and I think it is important, as part of an education, to provide clear career advice.

“I think this is an opportunity for two people, who have gone through or are going through an engineering apprenticeship, to be able to speak to potential future engineers about what it is really like, so they can make their own decisions.

“I think apprenticeships have been undervalued in the past 25 years by successive governments and their focus on the academic attainment of a degree.

“It has unbalanced the perception and value of apprenticeships and now is the time to restore that balance for a number of different reasons.

“It needs to be addressed, apprenticeships are the fundamental cornerstone for getting skills into a whole variety of businesses and the growing costs of degree level education means that route is becoming difficult in terms of affordability for a large part of the population.”

Mr Watmore, who started his apprenticeship at 18 after completing his A-levels, said: “I realised university straight from A-levels was not the route for me and I personally think apprenticeships are the way forward.

“It is a route a lot of people could take but they probably don’t get the high profile they should.

“It is a way to make a good living and I am currently finsishing my first year of HNC, am signed up to do my HND and hopefully a degree will come after that.

“As well as the issue of tuition fees, you get the value of experience which you can use towards your course.

“Taking an apprenticeship was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

“I enjoyed virtually every minute, while a lot of my friends have taken the university route and now don’t have graduate level jobs. I feel my future is bright.”

Miss Johnson said: “I always wanted to have a trade and feel that people have more respect for someone who has gone through an apprenticeship.

“I have found it really enjoyable and I think more women should try it out. It is something I would recommend to other people.”

With Mr Whatmore presently continuing his education, Mr Payne said: “Employers have got to recognise that some apprentices may wish to further their education and should be given the opportunity to achieve it.”

With regard to Miss Johnson, Mr Payne said: “Industry has to recognise it is important 50 per cent of the population realise there is a career opportunity for them within engineering.”

He added: “I am absolutely delighted to become an ambassador for the campaign.

“I believe businesses across the country need to recognise the value of apprentices and as part of that have a duty to play a leading role in promoting such initiatives.”

Darchem employs about 650 staff working across its five business units – covering aerospace, insulation systems, specialist fabrications, thermal protection and nuclear systems for sectors such as the motor industry, defence and oil and gas.