Overview: Apprenticeships a la Jamie are worth the tantrums

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The Independent Online

When the cry goes up, as it regularly does, that the country is desperately short of skilled workers those of us who have had any brush with the building trade will echo that.

When the cry goes up, as it regularly does, that the country is desperately short of skilled workers those of us who have had any brush with the building trade will echo that. It doesn't necessarily mean that we were unhappy with the finished job, but to have lived through a project is to have survived months of mini-dramas involving elusive plumbers, failed appointments and spiralling costs.

All of which makes Bricking It , a new series starting on Channel 4 today required viewing. A la Jamie Oliver's experiment with his band of young wannabe chefs, 10 teenagers with their eye on a career in the construction industry have been set the task of transforming an empty warehouse into a smart apartment in six months.

At the end lies the promise of a £50,000 cake to be shared between them if all goes well and the prospect of real apprenticeships.

It isn't long before the treasure chest has to be raided to pay for damaged goods and for the expertise of 20 years in the trade rather than 20 minutes. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and deadlines have to met. If initially it seemed rather depressingly as though the programme makers had merely relocated the Big Brother house to a building site with tensions between the 10 often reaching boiling point, followed by the first expulsions, you had to remind yourself that these were 18-year-olds for whom turning up on time was an achievement in itself. Their experience ran from prison to university and all shades in between and from this someone had to forge a working team.

The man who took on the challenge as tutor, mentor, foreman-cum-social worker is Dr Philip Ashton, a joiner who took a managerial and then academic path within the construction industry. He is now the head of the construction research team at the University of Brighton and, one suspects, found his six months in this new role as among the most demanding of his career. Not only did he have to deal with teenage tantrums, but also with a property to be delivered in full working order to Berkeley Homes, who would be asking some £350,000 for this two-bedroom flat at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, in south-east London.

Dr Ashton told me that he believes the industry is not investing nearly enough in training. "They must put their hands in their pockets.

"Even small companies who take on apprentices find they are the reaping the rewards in the end. There are youngsters desperate to get taken on and I have known them search for three years before finding something."

And those middle class parents who jokingly propose plumbing as a rewarding career for their offspring are already behind the game, if a few of Dr Ashton's team are anything to go by. They see no shame in eschewing academia in favour of learning how to bend copper pipes. A course at a London college recently, for instance, had 800 applications for 55 places.

And if the emphasis on building teamwork in Bricking It might seem contrived for the television audience Dr Ashton is quick to point out that working without thought for the other trades is a curse of most building sites, whatever the size. He has come away with more optimism about the motivation of today's teenagers than how well prepared the industry is to face the challenge of building hundreds of thousands of new homes. What we didn't see on the programme, were the hours the team spent at the end of the day analysing why a screw snapped or a wire became crossed. Ashton's reward came only this week when he received a phone call from one of his more troubled charges who stayed the course to say that he had just started his first job.

Bricking It, Channel 4, 9pm