Scott Renfrew has always wanted to work at sea.
“My step-dad, he worked at sea. He actually worked for CalMac for a bit,” Renfrew says.
“When I was younger, I was going out on wee boats and trying to get as much experience as I could, really.
“My family knew that I wanted to be doing it and when they saw the apprenticeship, they said, ‘look, this is a really, really good one’. And so I applied for it and, thankfully, I got it.”
Renfrew, 18, is from Greenock and has recently graduated as a deck ratings apprentice from CalMac Ferries’ Modern Apprenticeship programme.
Launched in 2014, the award-winning programme has earned recognition for its pathway into the merchant navy.
CalMac is seen as a leader in the UK Maritime industry for apprenticeships, recently being named by the Merchant Navy Training Board as one of the top-five companies for seagoing apprenticeships.
Blending time spent at college with real work at sea, the programme offers innovative 12-36 month-long courses for young people interested in deck or engine, retail and hospitality, or port and harbour work.
The programme was created in a partnership between CalMac and City of Glasgow College to provide unique nautical training to around 20 successful applicants each year.
The workforce across the merchant navy sector in the UK is experiencing a demographic challenge in the form of an ageing workforce. The MA programme is one of CalMac’s steps to meet that challenge head on.
Renfrew is one of 102 Modern Apprentices (MAs) who have gone through the comprehensive scheme since it began, and so far over 86 per cent of MAs have gone on to work for CalMac after completing their training.
“I was 17 when I applied. I left school at the end of fifth year to do this,” Renfrew says with some pride, speaking from home during his two-weeks-on-two-weeks-off rotation.
Describing what a typical work day is like, Renfrew says the variety is one of the things he enjoys most.
“So, on-board, as a deck trainee, I would be mostly dealing with loading and discharging vehicles and tying up and letting go of the ship when we come alongside,” he explains.
“On the crossings you do quite a bit of maintenance; washing down the ship, fixing things, painting – there’s a whole load of different things you can do.
“It’s good because no two days are the exact same, you know. It’s always something new,” he adds.
One of the main draws for applicants to the programme is its heavy weighting towards on-the-job training. Sea-going apprentices spend the majority of their time working aboard CalMac’s fleet of vessels alongside experienced crew.
The programme is fully funded by CalMac, with all MAs’ expenses for food, travel, accommodation and uniform provided.
This has opened the scheme up to applicants who might not have been able to gain merchant navy training before, as the industry can be notoriously expensive to get into.
CalMac says it is proud that the vast majority of the MAs come from the same communities served by its services in the north-west and the islands.
“CalMac plays a large part in the life of the islands through both the services we provide and by being a major employer,” Caroline Barry, Learning Partner at CalMac says.
“So, we want to give back and they’re giving back to us. It’s a win-win situation.”
Barry works directly with the apprentices, welcoming them to the programme each September and managing their progression through the course.
“I think for the young people who go onto the programme, it’s exciting,” she said.
“The apprentices go down to Glasgow two or three times throughout their training. They live in the city in student accommodation whilst attending City of Glasgow College, which they might not have had the opportunity to do before.
“The programme is fully funded: we pay for the uniforms and all their meals, and their digs. We pay for them to go home once a month, if they want to see their families.
“So, I think it’s an opportunity that people don’t readily get to move in to the merchant navy. I think that’s why it’s so sought after.”
Last year there were over 400 applications to the programme, which is advertised online and open for applications during Scottish Modern Apprenticeship week in March.
The year-long retail rating pathway is a unique aspect of the programme. It was the first course in the UK specifically designed for sea-going hospitality workers.
Designed with City of Glasgow College and Maritime Skills Alliance, it is a course bespoke to CalMac’s needs, winning recognition in March with an Association of Colleges’ Beacon Award.
The programme also runs in partnership with the RMT union, which offers support to apprentices as part of their training.
Another aspect of the course that sets it apart from many others is the approach to entry requirements.
Applicants to the MA programme are not admitted based on school qualifications. Instead, Barry says, CalMac looks for people who demonstrate resilience and an ethos of team working.
“What we’re looking for is people that come in that can show resilience. It’s not an easy job that they’re going to do, they’re going to be away from home, on the vessels two-weeks on, two-weeks off,” she says.
What’s important, Barry says, is “the ability to get their sleeves rolled up and get stuck in and the willingness to learn”.
Beyond the technical skills necessary for the job, the programme also trains up MAs in essential life skills, like money management and mental health awareness.
“As an employer, we’re very aware that we’re not just training them in technical skills,” Barry explains.
“The apprentices might just be leaving school, so they may not have had a bank account before or dealt with pensions and these sorts of things.
“We take these things seriously as well. We want to look after them.
“When they come in, the college allows time in their timetable for money skills. We work with Money Matters Scotland and they come in and do sessions with them on how to open bank accounts, and what a wage slip looks like and what to do with their pensions.
“We do mental health awareness with them, too, because we’re very aware that, for sea-going apprentices, they’re being asked to be away from home, living in a cabin. It can be a very big deal for people and we’re aware of that, so we make sure they’re equipped with mental health awareness before they go.
“All our vessels have experienced crew members who have been through mental health training and they have mentors on the vessels. They get buddied up with a former apprentice, which is a bit more informal so they can chat to them about, maybe, more age-appropriate things. So we try to cover it from all angles.”
This caring approach to new staff can be seen company-wide, not just within the MA programme.
Renfrew says at each step of his progression, he has felt as though he is surrounded by friends and family, starting with his course mates.
“I didn’t know one of them before I started and now, through the last year and a bit, I would say I’ve got some of my closest friends. They’re absolutely brilliant,” he says about his fellow MAs.
“There were maybe a few from Greenock, Gourock way, some down from as far as Stranraer.
“But then the majority of them are from the islands – Lewis, Harris, Uist, Coll and Tiree, Mull – they’re from all over, you know, it’s great.”
Barry says that in the feedback she gets from MAs, the time at sea is the most
valued part of the programme. Renfrew certainly found that the atmosphere on-board with the crew is what he treasures most.
“Everyone on-board is absolutely brand new,” he says.
“The nicest people ever. They’ll spend as much time as you need to help you. They really do make sure you’re happy, which is brilliant.
“You can be on board for Christmas or New Year so it’s like a second family. You get to know these people really, really well.
“Same with the people I spent time with at college. Some of them are now my closest friends.
“And some of the crew are a lot older than me. I’m a teenager, you know, I’m almost 19 but a lot of them have been doing this job for years and years.
“They’ve got all the experience, but it shows that they’re actually caring about the way that you learn.
“They spend so much time with you, it just makes you really happy knowing that they’re there for you.”