Ladder for the Black Country and Staffordshire: Duke of York gives royal approval for apprentices
It started out with a challenge from the Duke of York to become a 'local solution' to the problem of youth unemployment across the region.
Now the Ladder campaigns - which have expanded to include the Black Country, Staffordshire and Shropshire - have led to the creation of more than 1,000 apprenticeships.
Representatives from the Express & Star and its partners, including the Vine Trust and Performance Through People (PTP), attended an event hosted by the Duke at St James's Palace to mark the milestone.
But it was the apprentices that took centre stage. More than 100 of them were in attendance, some of whom have now moved on to full time careers in their chosen professions.
They included 19-year-old Nathan Hitchcock, from Burntwood, who started an apprenticeship at Steel Processing Midland (SPM) a year ago.
He said: "I had no idea what I wanted to do after I finished school and struggled to get a job.
"I was going for interviews and getting told that I didn't have enough experience. But how was I going to get experience if I couldn't get a job? It was frustrating.
"I found out about apprenticeships through PTP.
"It has enabled me to try lots of different types of roles at the company. Hopefully I can get a full time job there."
SPM's commercial director Nick Liggins, from Aldridge, said: "We currently have 45 staff, with around eight apprentices.
"We're looking at some serious growth over the next few years. We have found apprenticeships enable us to bring in employees and mould them into the way we operate.
"Our experience of the Ladder has been fantastic. It has opened up a lot of people's eyes to the value of apprenticeships. It's great for the young people who have shown such drive to succeed to have the positive experience of meeting the Duke in recognition."
Frances Moore, 22, who works in business support for PTP, spoke with the Duke as he chatted to apprentices during the event.
She said: "He asked me about different learning styles and I explained how some people learn in different ways," she said.
"I hated every moment of sixth form and when I decided I wanted to go into industry an apprenticeship was the best fit for me.
"It has been great to learn and progress with the company." Her colleague Laura Cross, 21, from Wednesfield, added: "I didn't do well in the classroom because I learn by doing.
"Apprenticeships are not generally promoted in schools, so it was good to hear the Duke talk about them being an alternative to university."
West Midlands Ambulance Service (WMAS) was out in force with three former apprentices - Kaytie Branston, Scott Kenzie and Shareen O'Driscoll - all of whom have gone on to gain full time jobs as technicians and drivers.
Diane Pittom, organisational development officer for WMAS, said: "The achievements of our apprentices have been fantastic and we are looking forward to spreading the net outside the West Midlands to help more committed young people into employment."
Four Express & Star apprentices were also at the event. Trainee reporter Jamie Brassington, 22, from Sedgley, said he had an enjoyable chat with the Duke about how he had developed as a journalist over the last 18 months.
"It was a fantastic event for the Ladder, which has helped so many young people across the region get into work," he said.
"I have been proud to be a part of it and would encourage other young people to look at apprenticeships. The success of so many young people in going on to full time jobs shows the strength of the scheme."
Numerous organisations who have backed the Ladder were represented at the event, including The Black Country Chamber of Commerce, Sandwell Council and Walsall Council.
Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, praised the role of the Express & Star for 'picking up the baton' and promoting apprenticeships.
"It has set a great example for the rest of the press to follow," he added.
At the event Kevin Davis, chief executive of the Vine Trust, announced the creation of the new Ladder foundation, which he said would help the scheme to develop nationwide.
"The Ladder has enabled hundreds of employees from across the area to realise that investing time and energy into young people," he added.
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