Have you ever seen a road sign installed? Unlikely as it’s cheaper to do it between 1-4am than close a road. The vast spread of commercial, traffic and other signage is the end product of a surprisingly wide-ranging and creative industry; it’s seen Clive Mitchell spend over 28 years teaching sign-writing and overseeing apprentices in just one of two English colleges now offering the new level 3 apprenticeship standard
Why and how did you get into sign-making?
I went to Walsall College as a student in 1978 and never really left! My father trained me in his sign-writing business where I became a partner, and because there was no specific course at the college I took painting and decorating as a related discipline. Then the college got additional funding and asked me, given my background, to run a night class in sign-writing. So began 10 years of part-time teaching before I went full-time in 1993. I helped set up our current department, co-wrote the level 2 and 3 NVQS for the National Occupational Standards Authority and recently contributed towards the new level 3 signage technician apprenticeship standard.
What’s your main role?
I’m an internal trainer/assessor for level 2 and 3 NVQs for mature workers seeking to expand their skills base, for two-year level 3 apprenticeships for 16-to 19-year-olds and for functional skills up to level 2 in English and maths (GCSE -equivalent), on a roll-on, roll-off basis. I’m also a lead IQA (internal quality assurer) and head a team of three. I check our endpoint assessors have done their job when students have completed their apprenticeship programme and don’t assess students much myself now.
We have 60 students this year, 50 of them apprentices and the rest company employees doing part-time, full-cost level 2 and 3 NVQs on a roll-on, roll-off basis. The apprentices are spread nationwide, so when working full-time as an assessor, I’d go anywhere in the UK - as far as the Shetlands, Belfast, Devon and Jersey.
I cover commercial and road traffic signage and sit on a sector scheme panel overseeing students qualifying to work on signage on highways and trunk roads. We follow occupational standards covering knowledge, skills and behaviours within the apprenticeship. Many practical skills are delivered by employers themselves, be they vinyl graphics and application, vehicle wrapping, routing, engraving, screen-printing, spray work, electrical signage and LEDs, neon, design work, manufacture of road traffic signage, bending and changing of materials, or installation.
What’s a typical day?
Each day is different and I love every moment. I start around 8.45am and finish at 5pm - I first grab a coffee, check through emails and post and contact any learners to send online meeting invites to. Most activities begin at 9.30am (companies usually start at 9am). Currently I’ve been working full-time from home but it’s normally two days from home and three on campus or out on site in recent months. When students start, I show them how to log on to Smart Assessor (an online portfolio), how to upload documents and fill in a time log to show what they are doing at all times each week. I feed back on any submitted work I have set them.
I focus on the knowledge sections of the apprenticeship, spending three-hour sessions every Wednesday. We hold one-to-one meetings with any student struggling on a particular topic. ‘Knowledge’ includes health and safety, manufacturing processes, materials used in signage, preparation of work/work areas, how to behave in a company, working relations and customer service. We review our apprentices’ progress every eight weeks online with learners and employers. Covid-willing, we still do on-site assessments - face-to-face contact is best.
Any specific task you have completed recently?
We’ve been doing a lot of vehicle-wrapping, ranging from from big trucks to Porsches!
What do students like studying most in your classes?
Self-adhesive vinyl application. Most sign-makers create signs using this method, which has replaced much of the traditional ‘brush and paint’ approach - the vinyl ‘transfers’ are cut on a plotter from computer-aided designs and then applied to the vehicle, sign, etc.
What do you about like teaching?
Everything! It’s great to see talent coming through. I particularly like seeing students wrapping a vehicle with vinyl for a complete transformation.
What are the most challenging aspects of your role?
Supporting learners who are good with their hands but lack academic skills and who need to pass functional skills exams in English, maths and IT. It can be a struggle but we get most students through. One mature student (aged 50) had always struggled to read and write but made great signs but when we told him he’d passed his maths, he said he wanted to continue studying it because he’d really enjoyed doing it. I felt great as it meant what I teaching him was going in and he enjoyed learning from me!
Any achievements you are proud of?
A few years ago one apprentice won a Young Sign-maker of the Year award from the British Sign and Graphics Association; several others have been nominated. I’m also proud of my input into national apprenticeship standards for sign-making apprenticeships, and keeping our own college courses going when most other colleges have stopped. Out of around 30 original sign-making centres nationally a few years ago, we are one of two remaining colleges offering these courses.
Personal qualities and skills needed for the job?
You have to be outgoing and have artistic flair, although you don’t need to be an artist. For teaching you have to show empathy and have authority (which counts a lot when zooming). We have a pastoral role as well - learners will phone you if they have problems not just with their job but outside. We can’t always help them, but Walsall College has a good support system and we can put people in touch with others on any issues. You need a good sense of humour and a wide range of skills as the industry covers so many areas - technology, practical and social (because we go to our learners’ workplace and not vice-versa). When you enter other people’s premises you have to be sociable - sometimes you’ll take flak from employers if they’re not happy with something, because we are the first port of call. I always tell employers I look forward to working with them as well as our learners. But our focus is on being fair to both parties - we have to raise issues for students with employers and sometimes all three of us will sit down to sort things out. We are a mediator as we have our learners’ welfare at heart.
Background, training, qualifications?
You need an NVQ in sign-making or equivalent up to level 3 (eg painting and decorating or engineering because sign making covers all areas), substantial industrial experience plus teaching qualifications you can often get sponsored by your college to study for in your free-time. Sadly, schools rarely promote sign-making. Ironically people just don’t see traffic signs being installed as it’s cheaper to do it between 1 and 4am than close a road!
How do you get students to focus on a difficult day?
I do something totally different online. Let’s say I can see interest waning in a rather dry health and safety topic we have to get through. I’ll run a quiz on a completely different subject/s and the students really enjoy it. Skategories is a popular format - you pick a theme word (eg orange, table) and then have 60 seconds to write down as many other words linked to that theme and beginning with the same letter. I’ve taken part too and failed miserably but that has amused the students; it’s cleared their minds, got everyone talking, and we’ve returned to health and safety with renewed focus. Don’t fear trying something different and changing your methods. That’s helped us keep our courses going and we’re now moving from strength to strength.
A key interview question for a wannabe lecturer?
What specific skills do you bring from the sign industry, and how do you acquire the skills you don’t have?
What spurs you on to work each day?
Seeing my learners carrying on my industry; it’s great to see fresh ideas streaming through. I love my job even now and have never had that ‘Monday morning’ feeling!