A gas explosion survivor who has become an inspirational preschool leader and an entrepreneur who has turned a hobby into a successful upholstery business were two of the winners at the Apprenticeship Awards Cymru 2024 awards ceremony last night (Friday).

Nine outstanding winners from across Wales, in categories for apprentices, employers and work-based learning practitioners, received the coveted awards as stars of the Welsh Government’s apprenticeship programme shone at the International Convention Centre Wales (ICC Wales), Newport.

The awards are organised by the Welsh Government and supported by the National Training Federation for Wales (NTFW) and headline sponsor is EAL, the awarding body.

One of the loudest cheers of the night was reserved for inspirational Jessica Williams, 34, a preschool leader at Ser Bach y Cwm, Ystradgynlais, who was named Higher Apprentice of the Year.

Jessica has fought back from life changing injuries, caused by a freak gas explosion that flattened her Seven Sisters home in 2020, to build a successful career.

The mother-of-two says the traumatic experience has changed her life and credits her Higher Apprenticeship (Level 5) in Children’s Care, Learning and Development, Leadership and Management, delivered by ACT Training, as giving her the encouragement to flourish.

“I have gone from being critically ill and fighting for my life to becoming a successful preschool leader,” said Jessica. “My journey has not been an easy one, but it has been incredible.”

The Small Employer of the Year award went to Needle Rock, an award-winning upholstery business established by Dr Ali J. Wright in Llanrhystud, near Aberystwyth in 2013.

A former UK Government plant health inspector, Ali is now growing her own apprentices after turning her hobby of rescuing old furniture into a flourishing business, which has four employees.

Ali’s ambition is to establish a Needle Rock Training Academy to deliver a new Level 3 Apprenticeship framework for Advanced Upholstery Skills.

Needle Rock’s first two apprentices have completed a Foundation Apprenticeship in Performing Manufacturing Operations and have begun another Level 2 Apprenticeship in Business Improvement Techniques with Myrick Training.

The Large Employer of the Year award was won by Transport for Wales, which has introduced a pioneering apprenticeship programme for train drivers in collaboration with the awarding body EAL and training provider Coleg y Cymoedd. The company employs 189 apprentices across 12 areas of the business and apprenticeships are delivered with ALS Training.

The Tomorrow’s Talent award went to higher apprentice Heledd Roberts, described as an “injection of positive energy” since joining the busy team at FUW Insurance Services Ltd three years ago.

Heledd, 24, from Carmarthen, joined the agricultural specialist insurance broker during the pandemic when she helped to cover multiple offices across the business.

Due to her enthusiasm to learn and motivate others, she has been promoted to lead account handler in North Wales and is currently based at the Ruthin office.

Heledd completed a Financial Services (Insurance Pathway) Apprenticeship within a year and is now working towards a Higher Apprenticeship (Level 4) General
Insurance, both delivered by ALS Training.

The other award winners were:
Foundation Apprentice of the Year is Gwynfor Jones, 18, from Treherbert who works at Welcome to our Woods, a community partnership in the Upper Rhondda Fawr connecting residents with nature through training provider, Bridgend College.

Apprentice of the Year is Laura Chapman, 21, who works for MotoNovo Finance in Cardiff and whose training provider is ALS Training. A passion for learning has transformed Laura from a shy teenager into a confident team leader.

Medium Employer of the Year is TRJ Ltd, Ammanford whose training provider is Coleg Sir Gar, working alongside Skills Academy Wales @NPTC Group of Colleges and Bridgend College. The third generation of a family is now running the successful construction business which was founded by former apprentice T. Richard Jones in 1935. Some 89 years later, the company employs 160 people, including 16 apprentices.

The Macro Employer of the Year award went to Cardiff and Vale University Health Board which has enrolled nearly 900 people to an Apprenticeship Academy since 2018. The board is building the professional capacity of its current staff whilst recruiting and training a new generation with help from lead training provider ACT Training, working alongside Talk Training, Educ8, ALS Training and Cardiff and Vale College.
Work-based Learning Practitioner of the Year is Anne Reardon-James, 46, from Caerphilly who works for Panda Education & Training and delivers Apprenticeships in Learning and Development in partnership with ALS Training. Currently working towards a Professional Doctorate in Education, Anne is described by her employer as the “epitome of lifelong learning”, sharing her knowledge to inspire learners and colleagues.
Al Parkes, managing director at EAL, said: “I would like to congratulate not just the winners of the Apprenticeship Awards Cymru, but all the employers, apprentices and work-based learning practitioners who were nominated.
“Showcasing their achievements is important as it inspires more people to consider apprenticeships and encourages more employers to take on apprentices.”
Christine Bissex-Foster, Chair of the Judging Panel, said: “With over 180 applications received for this year’s Apprenticeship Awards Cymru, it’s humbling to see that learners, employers, and work-based learning practitioners across Wales are continuing to excel in the Welsh Government’s Apprenticeship Programme.
“This year’s applications are a reflection of the extraordinary potential in Wales; they are of a very high standard. The winners and finalists have established a new benchmark for vocational education in Wales, and I want to offer my heartfelt congratulations to everyone involved. I would also like to extend my thanks to the dedicated judging panel who give their time and expertise every year.”
Chief Executive of the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, Simon Pirotte OBE, said: “I want to congratulate all the finalists and winners. Stories like theirs drive home the high impact that apprenticeships can have, helping people to find fulfilling employment and contributing to Wales’ skills system. They will be a crucial part of the newly founded Commission for Tertiary Education and Research.”
The other finalists of Apprenticeship Awards Cymru 2024 were:

Foundation Apprentice of the Year: Chelsea Fethney from Portmead, Swansea who works for Aspire Art of Hair, Swansea and whose training provider is Work Based Training Agency (WBTA), a partner of Cambrian Training Company.

Apprentice of the Year: Eleri Davies from Llanbadarn Fawr, Aberystwyth who works at Barcud Housing Association and whose training provider was Grŵp Llandrillo Menai and Megan Christie from Georgetown, Tredegar who works for GE Aerospace Wales, Nantgarw and whose training provider is Coleg y Cymoedd.

Higher Apprentice of the Year: Ellen Somers from Newport who works for Transport for Wales and whose training provider is ALS Training and Amy Evans from Pencoed, Bridgend who works for Zimmer Biomet, Bridgend and whose training provider is the University Wales Trinity Saint David.

Tomorrow’s Talent: Katie Trembath from Clydach Vale who works for Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council and whose training provider is ALS Training and Jacob Marshall from Pontypridd who works for Combined Engineering Services in Ebbw Vale in partnership with Aspire – Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council and whose training provider is Coleg y Cymoedd.

Small Employer of the Year finalists: Tiddlywinks Day Nursery, Neath whose training provider is TSW Training and Specsavers, Porthcawl whose training provider is Inspiro Learning, a partner of Cambrian Training Company.

Medium Employer of the Year: Little Inspirations, Pontyclun whose training provider is Educ8 Training and Ysgol Maes y Felin, Holywell whose training provider is Achieve More Training.

Large Employer of the Year: Whitbread Group PLC whose training providers are Lifetime Training, a partner of Cambrian Training Company and phs Group, Caerphilly whose training provider is ALS Training along with ACT, Coleg Y Cymoedd and Bridgend College.

Macro Employer of the Year: Swansea Bay University Health Board, Swansea whose training providers are Gower College Swansea and Skills Academy Wales @NPTC Group of Colleges and Babcock’s Aviation business at RAF Valley, Anglesey whose training providers are Grŵp Llandrillo Menai and Hyfforddiant Arfon Dwyfor Training (WBL) Ltd.

Work-based Learning Practitioner of the Year: Sioned Roberts from Cardiff who works for Urdd Gobaith Cymru and Gareth Lewis, Hirwaun who works for ALS Training.

For more information about recruiting an apprentice, visit: https://gov.wales/apprenticeships-genius-decision or call 03000 603000.

Picture captions:

Inspirational Jessica Williams who won the Higher Apprentice of the Year award.

Small Employer of the Year award winner Dr Ali J. Wright of Needle Rock with her apprentices.