"They're only young people and I think they're going to look at Morson and Vital Rail and think that the system has let them down. Again." the parent
"There's another guy who, before he started, was selling heroin to keep his kids but now he's stopped; he's getting by on £95 a week because after the course he's been promised he'll get a decent wage…now he's left with nothing...." the apprentice
"I've seen all the publicity with all these people getting their pictures in the papers…But now they need to get off their arses and start asking questions and turn this around so that these young people have got a future…" the youth worker
After opening the Vital Services Group's brand new training academy at the Soapworks in Ordsall last July, Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, bigged up such apprenticeship schemes as crucial to the British economy…
"The rail, power and high technology sectors are vital to achieve sustainable growth so it is important that we train young people to meet the demand for skills" he said "At present there is a large skills gap and creative training methods are required."
Almost two hundred young people, including around forty from Salford, signed up to Vital's academy on apprenticeships to gain qualifications to enable them to get good jobs on the railways.
Now those hopes are in ruins, as they've been caught up in big business failures, takeovers and buck passing involving Vital Skills Training, Vital Rail and the Salford based, Morson Group – which prides itself on `social responsibility'.
Last week, the young people got a letter from Vital Skills Training, which runs the apprenticeship courses, telling them to stay at home, adding that, because of `difficult challenges' it could not `process salaries', and was taking steps to put the company into administration. This year, Vital Skills Training received £421,484 from the Skills Funding Agency in sub-contracts from colleges, including Salford College, to run the courses.
Meanwhile, the engineering recruitment specialists, Morson Group, which has offices worldwide and boasts an annual turnover approaching £700million, acquired `certain businesses and assets' of Vital Services Group Limited from administrators, Deloitte's Reorganisation Services for £14.1million.
Morson took over companies, including one called Vital Rail, but not Vital Training Skills Ltd which runs the courses at the Soapworks. The apprentices' contracts are with Vital Rail, yet it appears that they have not, as yet, been transferred over to the Morson Group and are still out of work, owed back pay and holidays, and now without the course that is their passport to a job on the railways.
The apprentices received a letter yesterday from Deloitte giving details of the Morson takeover but stating that "the employment position of c 300 apprentices is currently being clarified".
For the apprentices and their families, there is no `clarification' needed – the contracts were with Vital Rail, now part of Morson Group which should honour its commitments…
"Morson has come in and doesn't want the burden of having to train these apprentices" one of the apprentice's mums told the Salford Star "It seems that this bigger company is trying to move the employment contracts over to a different company that they've not bought out, and are trying to make out these apprentices have a contract with that company - which isn't the case; they've got a contract with Vital Rail.
"I know that there are a lot of apprentices for which this was a lifeline" she added "Some of them may have criminal records or were drug users, and have tried to make a fresh start in life. They're only young people and I think they're going to look at Morson and Vital Rail and think that the system has let them down. Again.
"They've been sent home, they've got no pay, some of them have not had their holiday pay either and others are owed two or three weeks wages - £95 a week for these lads is a lot and they've worked hard for that money" she explained "When you take over a company you take over their debts but instead of taking the brunt of it they've punished the young kids and I don't think that's right. Something should be done about it."
The Morson Group prides itself on its social responsibility… "At the heart of our core values is a commitment to do the right thing for our customers, our people and our community" the company states on its website "We make a positive contribution to the communities we work in and drive sustainability in the industries we operate in, providing the skills for tomorrow, today."
For the apprentices now looking at a bleak future, it doesn't appear this way at all.
"I've been there for a number of months and have now got no qualification and no job" one them explained "I got sent a letter saying Morson has got a £700m turnover, yet can't afford to pay me £95 a week and put me through my PTS (Personal Track Safety). I was promised that I would get a card so that I could go and work on the railways.
"I didn't want to do it at the start, it was just a job but now I've been here this is what I want to do. It's not just a job any more. But I've still not got my PTS or my TIC Card so I can't go out on the track, and can't get a job.
"I've got mates on the course who have been smoking weed for five years and stopped for this course because they know at the end it's good money and they want to sort their life out" he said "Someone else on the course has been in prison and this job has changed him, he's just sorted his life out.
"There's another guy who, before he started, was selling heroin to keep his kids but now he's stopped; he's scrimping and saving for his kids and getting by on £95 a week because after the course he's been promised he'll get a decent wage" he added "So he's stuck to it for months and now, at the end, he can't earn a decent wage – he's left with nothing. No qualifications, no PTS card, nothing.
"If Morson would put us through that and pay for it…if they'd just do that we wouldn't be too bothered" he decided "It's the PTS and the TIC that we need just to go on track and earn some proper money. But now, where am I left?"
These young people should be a shining example of how the apprenticeship scheme works. It is the flagship scheme, not only of the Government but of local councils, MPs, employers and agencies, all keen to cash in for financial or image gains. It's left Salford youth workers like Graham Cooper, who helped prepare and place the young people into Vital's scheme, absolutely furious…
"I've seen all the publicity with all these people getting their pictures in the papers" he says "But now they need to get off their arses and start asking questions and turn this around so that these young people have got a future.
"No-one really appreciates the amount of time and effort that people like myself and others have put into getting these young men into the situation, which in some cases has taken years to build their confidence up" he adds "What will the people on these courses think of the system that has let them down? And what must they think of me who got them into this so-called new opportunity?"
As well as concern for the young people, for Graham, there's also an accountability issue.
"Where has the money gone?" he asks "By the sound of it the company, Vital Skills Training, has got hundreds of thousands of pounds which has been spent on no-one getting a qualification – how does that relate back to the Skills and Funding Agency? And how will the colleges who were given this money account for how that money was spent without the valid outcomes at the end of the training?
"It's disgusting because it's happened before with other providers and when the Government goes on about cutting costs and saving money why is it allowing this to happen?" he adds "Silver Track did the same thing with young people. In fact there are people on this programme who have already been let down by Silver Track, who then went to Vital Rail to complete their qualifications, and now are going to be let down again
"What is this going to do to those young people?" he fumes "This is not just Salford's problem, it's a Greater Manchester wide problem. The decision makers and councils need to get off their arses and do something about it."
For the past two days the Salford Star has been trying to get some answers as the corporate mess leaves young people's futures hanging in limbo.
"Vital Skills Training Ltd can confirm that we continue to work with stakeholders to secure a future for the business" said its Director, Rob Johnson "It is our aim to preserve jobs and protect employees. Until our discussions with third parties are complete, we are unable to provide further comment."
Vince Cable himself didn't comment. But his department assured us that the Skills Funding Agency, responsible for the National Apprenticeship Service funding will be `responding shortly'.
Morson - the company which the apprentices and their families believe is now responsible for their futures, having bought out their contract issuer, Vital Rail - told us that its directors were unavailable for a comment.
On announcing its takeover of Vital Rail and other companies in the Vital Services Group, Ged Mason, CEO of Morson Group, commented:
"We are delighted that Vital Human Resources Limited will join the Morson Group of companies and that we have safeguarded thousands of jobs… Vitals' initiatives to invest in creating the skills of tomorrow are critical for the success of the many infrastructure projects within the country."
Update: 1pm 15th November
The Skills Funding Agency has now sent us its statement… "The Agency is aware that Vital Services Group has gone into administration. We are in communication with Deloittes who are the administrators for Vital Services Group, in order to discuss next steps. The Agency's priority is to ensure minimal disruption to apprentices, learners and employers."
* The Salford Star now understands that some apprentices have, today, been paid for work they have done.
* The main image is of the Vital Skills Training Facebook site, showing Salford MP Hazel Blears with apprentices and Vince Cable opening the academy at the Soapworks.