It was more than 40 years ago Brian Welsh first walked through the gates of the Harland & Wolff Queen’s Island site, heading towards the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes which dominate the Belfast skyline.

Aged 16, he was starting a four-year steelworking apprenticeship. Brian stayed with Harland & Wolff for 10 years, picking up skills that have led to a career overseeing work in factories employing thousands, working for other household names at home and abroad.

Brian has been back at Harland & Wolff for a decade and now acts as one of our operations managers. But he might as well have another title: “Mr Apprentice”. Soon after his return, Brian was instrumental in setting up an apprenticeship scheme to ensure the shipbuilding and fabrication skills vital to Harland & Wolff’s work are taught to a new generation of employees. Over 150 apprentices have so far taken part in the scheme, with our 2024 intake set to boost those numbers significantly.

Apprenticeship opportunities are available at each of Harland & Wolff’s four manufacturing sites in the UK: Appledore (North Devon), Arnish (West Scotland), Belfast (Northern Ireland) and Methil (East Scotland); and in three skill areas – trades, business support and technical. The variety of opportunities on offer aim to provide apprentices with a wide range of transferable skills to navigate the ever-changing maritime industry. Many will work on the FSS contract, but Harland & Wolff’s five-sector strategy means many can also expect to work on commercial, cruise and ferry, energy and renewables projects, as well as defence.

Brian played a key role in establishing a welding academy, with apprentices learning what he says is “not just a skill, but an art”. Amid the sparks coming from bays where apprentices hone their abilities are a range of trainees. Some are straight out of school, a few left other apprenticeship programmes attracted by the potential of what they will learn at Harland & Wolff and the company’s bright future. Others have had previous jobs before joining. The list is varied and includes lifeguard, carer, chef, personal trainer and even children’s entertainer. Showing it’s never too late to learn new skills, one apprentice joined the programme at the age of 37.

Misconceptions about apprenticeships are fading away, according to Brian. “We interviewed almost 400 applicants for the last intake. People understand this is great job with good prospects. It’s highly skilled. As we modernise, we’re going to be working with robotic welding. This is a job where you earn good money and learn skills that are in massive demand.”

At Harland & Wolff we would like to take this opportunity to thank Brian for his ongoing service to the company as a mentor to our keen apprentices. We would also like to congratulate Brian for his recent nomination for the Mentor Award at the NI Apprenticeship Awards 2024 taking place in March.

Our existing workforce takes pride in passing on the hard-earned skills to the next generation.

“They know the importance of what they are doing,” says Brian. “They want to see their skills live on after they leave and it’s incredibly satisfying to teach them. Everyone is dedicated to the ships we work on.”

That dedication is highlighted by a tale Brian recounts about RFA Argus, a ship which Harland & Wolff converted into an aviation vessel in 1985. Decades later he visited the ship when it was moored in Southampton, driving down from Manchester with his father to tour the vessel he worked on. Speaking to the Argus’s captain, Brian was able tell him things about the ship which he did not know, even though he was its master.

Brian hopes to see that level of buy-in from the apprentices he is currently teaching.

“I want my legacy to be the apprentices we are training here now to be the supervisors, the engineers, the managers of Harland & Wolff of the future,” says Brian.

“Imagine if in 20 years’ time when we’ve finished all the FSS ships and we’re winning new orders from around the world, and someone who started as an apprentice right here in the welding shop was the chief executive of Harland & Wolff. That would be fantastic.”