Tom Wiggins, 29, from Gloucestershire has just secured a place as an apprentice with The Prince’s Trust. In this interview, he tells us about studying stonemasonry at Bath College and why he decided to switch careers, study something new, and become an apprentice.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I left a Gloucester sixth form college in 2004 with 10 GCSEs and A-levels in German, Media Studies and Information Technology.
We were all encouraged to apply for university, even though many of us held no particular desire to go into higher education.
At the time, there was very little emphasis on apprenticeships and trade skills, and so the option to go down this route was never offered.
Going to university was the in-thing, but it did many of my classmates a disservice. They went into unfulfilling jobs in retail when they could have been establishing a good early grounding for a career in the trades and other skilled jobs.
I started working in the head office of a mortgage company in February 2005 and I didn’t leave until May 2013. I didn’t particularly like it there, but I found myself being surrounded by people who shared a similar view – it wasn’t ideal, but it paid the bills.
I’d like to say that there was a light bulb moment or a flash of inspiration that caused me to choose stonemasonry, but it was slower and perhaps less cinematic than that.
I’ve always been a creative person. I enjoyed drawing as a child and at 17-years-old I discovered the joys of writing, so I’ve always had an appreciation for different types of hand skills.
Why did you start studying stonemasonry at Bath College?
I started studying stonemasonry in September 2013.
After eight years of working in an office, I realised that I wasn’t really getting anywhere. I didn’t like what I was doing, so I moved on. And for me, it paid off. At 27-years-old I was a mature student, and so I was relieved when I found that I had classmates who were not only around my age but some even older.
The course has always attracted students both young and old, and while it’s true that a young brain can pick things up quickly, but it is quite often the ones with a little bit of life experience who go on to make the best students.
Which company are you working with? How has that helped you progress?
I’ve been working for a stonemasonry firm about three miles from where I live. It was by no means an easy job to get – I had to be proactive.
Over the course of two years, I went to visit them on a couple of occasions, as well as ringing them and sending in my CV. I was careful not to pester them, but I made them known I was there and available for work at any point.
My time there has helped me come on leaps and bounds at college. The course is two days per week, so what you do when you’re not at college is very important.
Before I got the job in stone, I found I was lagging behind my classmates who were already out and working in the industry, but then the job allowed me to catch up.
I had to quickly learn how to use power tools at work, while college focuses primarily on hand tools. However, I did get to use my hand tools a great deal as well at work.
On top of that, looking at a piece of stone for an extra three days a week helped me sharpen what the industry calls the mason’s eye – an ability to see the very subtle variations in shade of a stone that indicates its high and low spots.
The more I worked stone, the more I could see, and the faster and more accurate I got. And it’s these two qualities – speed and accuracy – that make a good stonemason.
What has been the best thing about the course?
The teaching and facilities at the college have been great, but the very best thing has been making so many great friends.
The camaraderie and kindness between everyone on this course has been off the scale. Stonemasonry is a very niche industry so everyone knows everybody else and it feels wonderful to be part of a small community of people who are passionate about working, conserving and restoring stone.
Ray and Paul are both master masons and Tanya, our technician, is also a Bath College trained stonemason, sawyer and experienced stone carver.
So suffice to say, there’s a huge wealth of experience on our campus and everyone is so approachable and happy to help or lend advice. It’s been a pleasure from start to finish. I’d go back to September 2013 and do it all again in an instant.
Can you tell us about the apprenticeship with the Prince’s Trust?
It was Ray, my third year lecturer, who encouraged me to apply for it. It’s an eight-month apprenticeship that begins in July and ends in February.
It starts off as a summer school in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow where we’re given lessons in construction, geometry, and a series of hands-on workshops.
After the summer school, we will all play a role in a “live build” on the grounds of a Glasgow estate. This means that all of the chosen apprentices (who might include carpenters, lime plasters as well as stonemasons) will be part of a construction project from start to finish.
When that’s complete, we will disperse and begin our work-based placement in our chosen fields. It’s a very prestigious and sought-after apprenticeship and I’m eager to give an excellent representation of myself as a newly-qualified mason and alumni of Bath College.
How did you feel when you were offered a place on the programme?
The application process went very smoothly. I submitted my written application at the end of February and had the interview at the end of March.
Some applicants had a telephone interview, but I had to go to London for a face-to-face interview. I was lucky enough to know one of the interviewers – he leads the Bath College placement at Woodchester Mansion – so I’d already established a good rapport with him.
Having him there proved less nerve-wracking than if I’d been sat across from interviewers I didn’t know. I was over the moon when I heard I’d been accepted.
Knowing that I’ve got a great adventure ahead of me, it’s changed my outlook on the whole year. It’s a little scary, but scary is always good.
What are you most looking forward to about your apprenticeship with The Prince’s Trust?
I’m looking forward to building on the lessons we’ve had at the college in geometry and classical architecture.
At college, we draw all the components we make. Before we work any stone – be it a plinth, a windowsill, a ball finial or a piece of tracery or any of the other jobs that we’ve done – we draw it and make a full set of templates and moulds first.
There’s a huge amount of geometry involved in designing a building – most of which we learnt from the Greeks – so I’m looking forward to using and developing those skills during the design stage of the apprenticeship.
Would you recommend studying at college to others?
For me, the college experience has been a resounding success and one of the most positive experiences of my life. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s important for prospective students to choose the course they enjoy the most – the course that feels most natural to them. Why be mediocre at something you don’t really like when you can be great at something you love?
Interested in an apprenticeship? Let us know!
What are the next steps to becoming an apprentice?
Please complete the form below giving details of the apprenticeship you want to take and the employer who has offered you a placement.