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Mature apprentices

Mature apprentices Posted on 28 March 2023

Jacqui Ramsay and Emma Mackenzie study painting and decorating at Inverness UHI

With a declining supply of 16 and 17-year-olds coming into the trade, mature apprentices are helping fill the gap.

The UK has a recruitment problem. Almost every business is finding it tough to source fresh talent. The steady stream of 16-year-olds leaving school ready to take up apprenticeships is a thing of the past.

One potential answer to this is mature apprenticeships. It’s becoming increasingly common for companies to take on and train older people, often with great success. 

At UHI Inverness they’ve noticed this significant shift. Mark Mitchell, Painting & Decorating Lecturer, said: “Over the past 10 years, we’ve been really successful at attracting adult learners and mature students. These days, school students are encouraged to stay on until they are 18. We’re finding that we’re getting a lot of apprentices in the 21 to 25-year-old bracket; people who’ve made a change in career. 

“They may have worked in the service industry, supermarkets or hospitality and found that’s not always very rewarding for the effort put in. In many cases they’ve made a change, gone into construction and
found that it is a rewarding career, both financially and in terms of job satisfaction.” 

Few negatives

Notably, he said there are few negatives to this trend. “Mature learners are focused and committed to the apprenticeship. They have the core skills employers need – to get up in the morning, observe good timekeeping, and have a good attitude and mindset. There is very little downside to taking on a mature learner.”

The course on offer at UHI Inverness is one that’s standard across Scotland. They deliver the PDA Level Six, which is carried out over two years. 

Apprentices normally spend approximately 19 weeks at college in their first year and 11 weeks in their second. At Inverness this takes the form of block release of four or five weeks at a time. Each block focuses on a particular skill or aspect of the apprenticeship, such as prepping and coating metal or plaster. After the second year apprentices don’t return again until fourth year, when they begin preparing for their skills test. 

To make the apprenticeships fully effective, the college has developed a positive relationship with local employers. “Among other things we have an assessor who visits apprentices on site, just to check on the progress and make sure they’re hitting all the targets,” said Mark. 

“We’ve found that a lot of employers used to have a fixed idea of an apprenticeship – it involved a 16-year-old school leaver carrying out four years of training. Now, many have accepted that apprentices are going to be slightly older.” 

Despite the positive aspects of mature apprenticeships, there can be difficulties too. Mark said: “As I understand it, during the first year of the apprenticeship you’re on an apprenticeship wage. If you’re in your mid-20s or 30s and receiving £4 an hour that’s not great if you’ve got rent or a mortgage to pay. After the first year they go on to minimum wage. Fortunately, most employers are happy to pay the additional wage because the apprentices have proved their worth over the previous year.”


Ultimately, success as an apprentice has little to do with age and more to do with character.  Mark added: “It comes from within the individual. If you have a good work ethic and mindset, if you’re keen and enthusiastic, you’re going to do well. My advice is ‘work hard’. One of the most important skills is the ability to listen to the advice you’re given, both at college and on site. If you can take that on board and apply it in the workplace it’s a recipe for success. 

“Also, I encourage our apprentices to throw themselves into activities. Some younger people have a fear of looking stupid in front of their peers. But you can’t get better unless you take part. I try to instil in them the importance of getting your hands dirty. Fortunately, the mature apprentices are less self-conscious and have fewer hang-ups about getting involved.”

Ready, willing and able? It seems mature apprentices are providing some of the solutions to the country’s recruitment dilemma.

Jacqui Ramsay, age 36


Jacqui Ramsay fulfilled a long-held ambition at age 36 when she began a painting and decorating apprenticeship.

In July 2022 she joined a trade she’d wanted to be in for years. Fifteen years ago, when she mentioned it to her partner of the time, he did his best to put her off, even though he was a painter himself. First, he said that at 21 she was too old, then he told her no employer would take on a female apprentice.

“His arguments had me convinced, so I went down a different path,” Jacqui said. “However, eventually, I met someone new, married him and had children.” Ironically, Jacqui’s new husband was also a painter. When she told him about her ambitions he was far more encouraging and mentioned the adult apprenticeship.


Jacqui explained: “We were in the lucky position where my husband could support us while I was on a lower income. So I thought, ‘Why not? I’m going to go for it.’”

She landed her apprenticeship with Springfield Properties and has no regrets whatsoever. “The days go by quickly and it’s nice to be back learning again,” Jacqui said.

Those days are spent at Springfield’s Ardersier site. She continued: “I was quite anxious about being a woman in the job, but the guys have been welcoming and I haven’t found any difficulty. I get treated no differently than any other tradesman.”

According to Jacqui, one benefit of being a mature apprentice is that she’s trusted to get on with things. “Because my husband is a painter I had some basic knowledge when I started and I’m asked to do almost every aspect of the job. Although, at the moment, the tasks take me a bit longer than my journeyman. 

“I like doing a seal coat because it means I’m left on my own. I stick on my earphones and get on with the job and the end of the day comes really quickly.”

At the end of her four-year apprenticeship, Jacqui would like to stick with Springfield if possible. “They’re a good company, especially in dealing with issues such as childcare, “she said. “Also, I lost my father-in-law recently and Springfield were very understanding, giving me the time I needed to support my husband and family. I’ve worked for many companies and it’s nice to see one that cares so much for its employees.

“They did say that they normally let apprentices move on after they qualify. That’s fair enough and if it happens, I’ll explore other options.”

Whatever transpires, Jacqui’s convinced she’s made the right call. “It took a bit of courage to change career at my age but now I wish I’d done it sooner.”

Emma Mackenzie, age 28


When Emma Mackenzie studied the UHI Inverness prospectus there was only one thing for her – painting and decorating. “I’d done some work on my flat and was keen on upcycling furniture, so the course was the one I naturally leaned towards,” Emma said.

In 2015, aged 21, Emma took a national progression award that served as an introduction into painting and decorating and a forerunner to her apprenticeship. “I thoroughly enjoyed it and the college lecturers were really helpful – they helped me secure the apprenticeship. In truth, I didn’t picture myself actually doing this as a job until I got halfway through the course.”

After beginning with one employer, near the end of her course Emma joined her current firm, Andrew MacNeil of Dingwall. “I really enjoy working with them. We do a variety of projects; everything from council work to small domestic jobs, bars, restaurants and commercial units.”

Wallpapering is Emma’s forte. “I was lucky enough to win a few competitions in college, including one on papering,” she said. “I was also a runner-up at the British Education Awards. Mark Mitchell from the College nominated me. I’m a single mum and I think he was impressed with me for getting through my apprenticeship and bringing a child up at the same time.”


Being a woman in a traditionally male sector has proved smooth going. Emma noted:  “In my college class there were another two females and one of my lecturers was female. Now, I have an apprentice called Gemma Hughes. Although there are a few of us in the trade, we’re still outnumbered! I’ve not suffered anything negative over the years. In fact, I find that men really try to make me feel at ease when I’m at work.

“Speaking of Gemma, she’s been with us since May and is doing so well. She’s definitely going to be a good painter.”

Although she completed her apprenticeship in 2019 and has been a mentor to younger tradespeople, Emma is always keen to learn new skills. She said: “I’d like to get more experience with spraying, because it’s definitely the future of painting and decorating. I’m hoping at some point I’ll be able to go on a course.”

Meanwhile, she’s very happy that she followed her instincts back in 2015. “This is my life now and I feel like I’ll never be short of work. I’ve definitely gone down the right path.”

Gatis Celmins age 38


Gatis Celmins is one of UHI Inverness’s real success stories. His expertise saw him win a gold medal in the Painting & Decorating category at the 2019 SkillBuild competition. That came on top of victory in the SAPCT advanced craft competition in the same year.

These triumphs must have seemed a long way away when Gatis was working in Tesco after coming to the UK from Latvia 14 years ago. 

“I had been a carpenter in Latvia and knew I didn’t want to work in retail,” he said. “I did an introduction to construction course, but because I was a mature student it was hard to get an apprenticeship. Luckily, I got my chance through the Bell Group.” He hasn’t looked back since.

Gatis started his apprenticeship six years ago and, though he found the practical side of things straightforward, it was more difficult to adjust to college.

He said: “When you’re with youngsters aged 16 and 17 they can be disruptive sometimes. However, as a mature student I felt I could help the lecturers. My construction background meant I was able to pass on some tips to the boys. Although the first year was hard, things got easier after that.”


There were other highlights too – he particularly enjoyed gaining skills in wallpapering and advanced crafts such as gold leaf and signwriting. 

Meanwhile, Gatis’s time at college may not be finished. “I have plans to start another course in August,” he said. “The company is very happy for me to develop new skills.”

Whatever happens, he is content to be based in Inverness. “We have two children and have been to many parts of the UK. We like the Highlands and are not planning to move anywhere soon.”

Main picture: Jacqui Ramsay and Emma Mackenzie from UHI Inverness. Photography by David Stewart UHI Inverness.

Read more about the painting and decorating course at UHI Inverness here.