The Christmas present, the Mentor and the Apprentice

Steve Smith
February 17, 2021

It is National Apprenticeship Week so now is the time to share my story.

I was an only child raised by my mother who worked long hours to feed us and pay rent for our council flat in Peckham. I did fairly well in primary school but like many of my peers, secondary school was a different matter. By the end of 1969 – after the loss of three relatives in as many months – I was off the rails. I left school with an Art O’Level and enough artwork to open a gallery.

But, education isn’t just about school is it? Many of us fail in mainstream education yet still carve out a career. Fortunately, two years earlier, my grandparents had bought me a Philips Electronic Engineer kit. It was the start of a lifelong interest in making, breaking and fixing things. My new-found skills led to me acquiring two broken guitars which I rewired and learned to play well enough to form my first band.

Steve Smith. Tech Entrepreneur and Apprentice Mentor.

At the time, some of my non-musical peers were also into making, breaking and fixing things - but in their case through crime. Some of my friends became career criminals and it was no surprise as their role models were on the wrong side of the law just as mine might have been had it not been for a chance interaction.

One of the first records I bought in 1964 was “Glad All Over” by the Dave Clark Five. I was a big fan of The Beatles but The DC5 were local heroes – my heroes. In late 1970 I called in to a new music shop in Camberwell, south east London where I came face to face with the owner, DC5 bassist Rick Huxley. I didn’t know it then and Rick never did, but he was my mentor and inspiration from that day on.

Dave Clark Five

I would spend hours each week in Rick’s shop listening to stories about his success, crash and recovery. I learned valuable business skills and put them to use with my band - I had learned basics of sales and marketing, contract negotiation, investing in versus hiring equipment, project management and logistics – skills that would serve me well with my band and throughout my career.

I lost contact with Rick around 1981 a few years before I co-founded Astro Communications. I didn’t realise the impact Rick had on my life until many years later. I am reasonably sure I would not be writing this now had it not been for the Philips Electronic Engineer kit and my chance interaction in the music shop in 1970.

So, what has all this got to do with my apprenticeship? Clearly, having missed vital years in school I wasn’t heading for university - there was no chance of that anyway - and the realisation was sinking in that I was unlikely to be a rock guitarist so I had to start thinking about a proper job. By chance I accompanied a friend to a Post Office Telecommunications Apprenticeship selection day as he was in need of moral support. He failed the practical assessment but my self-taught diagnostics skills came through and I passed - my friend never spoke to me again.

However, there was a rather large hurdle. Candidates had to have a pass in maths and science. By a stroke of luck, the apprenticeship start date was six weeks before my exam results were due so I convinced my Training Officer I expected good results. I had a plan: should I be offered the job I would work around the clock to make myself so useful it would be difficult for my employer to let me go when my failed exam results were made public. My strategy paid off and my Training Officer told me while he should let me go, he was going to take a chance on me.

When I completed my apprenticeship, I was in the top six apprentices in the entire year group of over 100 apprentices. Academically, I was a failure but I was a very competent telecoms technician and was assigned to a specialist team of my choice when I finished my apprenticeship.

I left Post Office Telecoms in 1979 and moved to Cable & Wireless UK Services as a Field Service Engineer and within five years at C&W I had progressed to Area Manager for the South East of England. Then in 1984 I co-founded my current employer - Astro Communications - with a C&W colleague. I am now less than three years away from a half century career in the IT industry where I have worked in secret underground communication centres, North Sea oil and gas platforms, power stations, theatres, holiday resorts, ships and offices across the UK and in several countries too.

I specialised in troubleshooting large networks and have trained hundreds of engineers in advanced network communications and troubleshooting during my time with C&W and Astro. My customers include many household names. I have also employed and mentored apprentices who have gone on to have fulfilling careers of their own.

I still cannot pass an exam!

The moral of this story? Many young people need a hand up from a mentor at the right time. It can make a huge difference to someone’s life. If you have an opportunity to help a young person, please… just do it!

By Steve Smith

Want to hear more about our initiatives?