23/09/2021

No careers advice

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I think at my school there was a small box containing several brochures with scratchy details of various careers. You were free to delve into the box but there was no such thing as a careers officer or lessons to assist in choosing a future occupation. I recall from school days going through phases of interest in things as diverse as the east coast fishing fleet or joining Customs & Excise. I clearly had no idea.

Mum and Dad stressed that I should learn a trade because that would help me one day to earn £1,000 a year, then I would be ‘made for life’. But I realise the advice I gave to my children (get a degree!) proved not particularly appropriate for their lives, though it gave them useful grounding. Taking my parents’ advice I applied for two apprenticeships at the age of fifteen. I had taken and passed three ‘O’ levels a year early at that age but the impression was that as the eldest of three, perhaps my family needed me to be out of school and earning.

By this time, I was already into working on motorbikes, having bought two ‘basket-cases’, a 350cc AJS Twin that turned out to be missing its camshafts and an ex-War Department 490cc 16H Norton that was much more successfully restored (more of this below). These two bikes cost me less than £20 in total. I can only assume that this interest was the reason for my apprenticeship choices.

AJS 350 cc
Ex-WD 16-H Norton 490cc side-valve

The first application had me travel by train alone to Birmingham, probably the longest solo journey of my life at the time. Arriving at New Street Station I found it was being re-developed so was a horrendous, gloomy, dirty and confusing building site. When I found my way out I was in a Birmingham that, like Bristol, still prominently bore the scars of WWII. It was a patchwork of building sites and bomb sites. It was raining. The interview was with Lucas Automotive Products, on a sprawling site that immediately filled my nose and throat with that very particular cloying taste that engineering plants and foundries emanate. I do not recall what happened, whether they turned me down or if I discounted them.

The second interview had my dad drive me across to Luton for an apprenticeship with Vauxhall Motors. I have no idea of where I would have lived 130 miles away from all I knew. Fortunately, I did not pursue either career and went on to take further ‘O’ levels at sixteen.

ASIDE: many years later Jane and I met up with two German journeymen in our Prague hotel; in their traditional Bavarian costume they looked larger than life. I had to look up what a journeyman was – a trainee or apprentice. They were travelling and offering their services to local master carpenters to gain additional experience. Now that sort of apprenticeship seems like much more fun. When a cousin gave me a box of old family documents, I found my grandfather’s wedding certificate described him as a journeyman locksmith.

My next foray to look for a job was to be with Bristol Siddeley Engines (later Rolls Royce). This had nothing to do with any careers advice and everything to do with selling the shop’s most expensive pair of six guinea shoes (£6.30) during my Saturday job at Saxone.

Six guinea Chelsea boots

A customer came in and inevitably you talk of ‘cabbages and kings’ during the sale and he explained that he was a computer programmer, perhaps the first time I had seriously encountered that term. He was a nice bloke who clearly could afford expensive shoes in his chosen career and before I knew it, aged fifteen, I had applied to Bristol Siddeley to train as a computer programmer.

I need to immediately correct the impression the job title will have conjured up today. This was the early 1960s and computers needed air-conditioned rooms, weighed tons and did very little. They were used for very early forms of invoicing, payrolls and stock keeping.

During my interview they showed me their current computer. It consisted of vast arrays of flashing diode and triode vacuum tubes, and thousands of hot valves making for a harsh environment that produced more heat than calculation. They proudly took me to another area which had a false floor with many panels opened to reveal a huge rats’ nest of cabling under the floor, around the walls and across the ceiling connecting a series of cabinets that would, in the next year or so, be their first solid-state transistor computer.

Early Computer with arrays of vacuum tube diodes and triodes

Of course, programming back then was about machine-code, or it used Autocode, ALGOL, COBOL and FORTRAN which were specialist languages developed in the 1950s. You could not programme a computer directly. You prepared software in one of those early languages, usually to paper cards or paper tape. Then you had to wait your slot to have the computer compile it, requiring a number of iterations to eliminate inevitable errors. The output could finally be applied to the computer – when your place in the queue for access next came up.

The guys there advised me that the ‘trade’ of computer programming was competitive and I would do better to hang on in and get my O-levels before joining them. This was bad advice. It turned out that by the time I completed Os you needed A-levels to be recruited. By the time I had completed As an applicant would not be considered unless already graduated in an appropriate course.

Make decisions – don’t rely on others’ advice!

In proceeding to A-levels I had to choose my courses. Essentially the first option was whether to pursue arts or sciences; of course all my early thrashing about had pointed me to science and to computers. I opted for Pure Maths, Applied Maths and Physics for my three A-levels. The school only ran Maths (general), Physics and Chemistry but agreed to set up special classes for me to pursue my chosen subjects.

When it the time came to decide on a university course there was still no input from my school. I recall my peers thumbing through a book which stated the ratio of female-to-male students at each college – this was the only criterion they used to select their three options.

I had lost momentum for education, being much more engaged by my casual work (see later), and my A-levels were not great – a C, an E and an O. I completed the UCCA form and applied to Sheffield and Leeds for Automotive Engineering courses and Loughborough for a Cybernetics and Ergonomics course (not really understanding either term in detail). It was Leeds where I hit it off with one of the faculty team. I had overnighted in one of their halls and over dinner we had a long conversation about the pros-and-cons of the eccentric-rotary Wankel internal combustion engine, another 1950s development. I got an offer from them. In those days we received local authority grants to go to college but Bristol Education Committee refused to pay for Leeds when I could do the same course at Bristol Poly more inexpensively living at home. I did wonder if this was pay back for my part in wrecking their canoes!

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