A new goal for AA apprentice HGV driver Nathan
A few months ago he was playing professional football for Rotherham United. But having just achieved the first goal of his new career as an apprentice with the AA, Nathan Watson has no regrets about turning his back on the Beautiful Game.
"Every kid wants to be a footballer, but when you do it to earn a living it is very different," he says.
"It is very cut-throat, there is so much pressure. You're only as good as your last game, and you're on a one-year contract so you don't know if you will have a job at the end of it."
Nathan, 18, is one of 21 apprentices at the AA's new training academy in the West Midlands. At the end of the course will be a fully-fledged HGV recovery driver who will be dispatched to rescue stranded motorists the length and breadth of the country.
Two months into his course, he has passed his first test, meaning he is now fully qualified to load a car onto the back of a 66ft flat-bed truck.
"He's a great lad, we're like brothers," says his 'mentor', 37-year-old Shaun Baugh.
And Shaun knows his stuff. He is the AA's recovery driver of the year, meaning that his £135,000 lorry bears the prestigious number plate AA3. And is heavily involved in the new programme to train the recovery drivers of tomorrow.
The national – and indeed global – shortage of HGV drivers has been well documented, and the AA is no exception. To tackle the problem, the motoring organisation has started an apprenticeship scheme from its 'centre of excellence' off Junction 2 of the M5 at Oldbury to train the next generation of recovery drivers and repair patrols.
Under the scheme, apprentices can obtain their Category C licence 2 within three months, and become fully qualified within 12 months, typically earning £32,000 a year.
AA president Edmund King says: “The launch of the AA Driver Academy is the latest example of the AA’s ability to innovate when challenges are presented.
“The HGV driver shortage affects all transport sectors, and the AA is playing its part by helping to fill this skills gap by providing young people with a promising career opportunity. Their training will not only teach them how to drive HGVs but will give them problem-solving skills, as well as, expert customer service, to help our members when they need us most."
Shaun, who joined the AA four years ago, travels 80,000 miles a year as he navigates the nation rescuing stranded members.
"I used to be a transport manager in an office, I came to the AA for a bit of freedom," he says.
"The thing I enjoy most is helping people. We work Christmas Day, and that can be interesting. The thing you realise about Christmas is that people really appreciate what you do, they are usually visiting family or friends."
"You get an interesting variety of jobs - I once had to rescue an ice cream van."
While the job obviously requires many practical skills, Shaun says people able to interact with a variety of different people is probably the most important.
"The biggest thing in our job is being a people person," he says.
"You are representing the AA, which is a big brand to protect. It's all about good communication, and talking to members.
"You meet all sorts of people, you never know what to expect when you are sent on a call. Some people want to chat, others don't. There was one lady who was stuck on the hard shoulder of the motorway, she was really worried. I ended up being a really good friend of hers."
Nathan says the amount of time on the road is the hardest part of the job, recalling one of his first jobs involved recovering a vehicle from Glasgow.
"I had just the one job all day," he says. "We started at 7am, and got back at 7pm."
But he says the positive side is the variety in the work, as well as the pride of representing the venerable motoring organisation.
"It's very hands on, and you don't know what is around the corner," says Nathan.
Of course, the majority of breakdowns do not require Shaun and Nathan's services. Eighty per cent of AA call-outs are fixed at the roadside by patrol staff such as Dan Smallwood.
Dan, 41, from Telford, drives one of the AA's famous yellow vans which are usually the first on the scene when a member suffers a breakdown.
Dan has been with the AA for eight-and-a-half years, having previously worked for a VW garage in Telford.
"The most common problems are battery related, with cars not starting. Punctures are another common problem, a lot of modern cars don't have spare tyres," he says.
He says electric cars running out of charge is an increasingly common problem, particularly during the winter months.
Dan usually reports for duty at 7am, and will typically receive six or seven calls a day around the Midlands, occasionally venturing as far as Manchester in the north and Oxford in the south, clocking up an average of 250 miles a day.
Surprisingly, the cold weather does not bother him.
"The AA provides us with some very good clothing that keeps us warm," he says.
On the other hand, the downside of the job is that cars often break down in the most unfortunate of places.
"The hardest part is when members are stranded in dangerous or unsuitable locations," says Dan. "Along the side of the A5, with all the traffic going past, is not the nicest place to work."
He also feels a sense of disappointment when he is not able to repair a car at the roadside.
"There are quite a few specialist cars that are still in warranty," he says. "You can repair them, but the manufacturers don't let you repair them because you have got to go through their specialist warranty procedure. That gets frustrating, you can fix them, but you aren't allowed to."
Another bugbear is the tendency of modern car manufacturers – he cites Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW as the biggest offenders – of placing covers over important components, which he then has to remove and replace.
Despite these irritations, Dan says the positives far outweigh the negatives, and is in now doubt about which aspect of the job he enjoys most.
"The best part of the job is seeing the members drive away," he says.
"You do get a bit of a buzz when everything goes according to plan."
The AA Driver Academy at Oldbury runs apprenticeship schemes for both roadside patrol and recovery drivers. For more information visit theaacareers.co.uk/early-careers