THE search is on once again for Ayrshire’s top apprentice.

Irvine Incorporated Trades launched the 2018 competition as part of Scottish National Apprentice Week by inviting last year’s finalists for lunch with some of the area’s best known employers.

The event was hosted by NATS, the Prestwick-based air traffic control centre which handles more than a million aircraft a year.

The base is currently going through a £600million systems upgrade with the company’s other control centre down south.

Those apprentices nominated for the top award in 2017 were invited to tour the air facility and take part in a question-andanswer session with a panel of businessmen.

Nats’ Operations Director Alastair Muir was a member of the panel along with Roddy Fraser, Deacon Convener of the Trades and the owner of a classical organs business in Irvine.

The other two panel members were Billy Bowie, the trucks and skips magnate better known as a board member of Kilmarnock Football Club, and Alan McLeish, managing director of rail maintenance group QTS.

Both ventured out on their own many years ago and now have hugely successful, high-profile businesses in Ayrshire – Billy using the £5,000 he had saved from his lorry driver wages and Alan with £300 he had borrowed from his mum.

Apprentice of the Year organiser Brian Donohoe chaired the proceedings and introduced the panel members as “great examples of personal enterprise”.

Brian, himself, had started his career as an apprentice in the shipbuilding industry before moving into public service and becoming an MP for more than 20 years.

He told those present that he viewed apprenticeships as one of the keys to restoring the economy by providing young people not only with jobs but with properly-structured, long term careers.

Companies and organisations which had been invited to the launch included the three Ayrshire councils, GSK, Spirit Aerosystems, Hillhouse Quarry, GE Caledonian, Braehead Foods and UPM Caledonian.

A wide range of subjects was discussed but the clear message was that apprenticeships are a necessary form of recruitment in today’s industry.

Panel members agreed that a university education would benefit some young people but were of the firm belief that many others would do better to climb the ladder of opportunity through apprenticeships.

The 2018 Irvine Trades Apprentice of the Year Awards dinner is being held at The Portal centre in Irvine on Friday, September 7.

Closing date for apprentice entries is June 8.