The words of Rob Colbourne’s high school careers teacher from almost forty years ago still echo in his head to this day. 

At 15, a young Rob had decided he had had enough of school and wanted to get a job. Teachers were horrified as they had him down to go on to sixth form and then the traditional route to university. Rob however, was insistent that he wanted to take on an apprenticeship. 

Rob said: “Looking back I’m amazed how headstrong I was at school. The careers teacher told me I was “ruining my life” by not staying on to study further. They even telephoned my parents and the PE teacher (a silver medal winner at the 1984 Olympics and hero of mine) was drafted in to persuade me otherwise. 

“Fortunately, I stood firm and applied for two jobs, one at Sainsburys as a trainee manager and one as an apprentice or YTS as it was then, at Debenhams. 

“I was offered the Sainsburys job and was ready to start when an offer came in from Debenhams. Despite my parents’ protestations, I went for the lesser paid apprenticeship at Debenhams. 

“I think I already had self-belief, but through the apprenticeship also learned about work ethics, standards and values and I became confident in my abilities.” 

Within a year Rob became a shop floor deputy manager and at the age of 18 he was looking after apprentices at three stores in East Anglia. 

One time on his journey home by train he called in to Principles for Men store (part of the Debenhams Group) in Birmingham. Because he had his suit on a customer thought he worked there and asked for advice on a purchase. The store manager noticed Rob’s reply and attitude which led to a job offer managing the Principles branches in Derby and Walsall. 

In the early 1990s because of his experience in management and training, Rob became the operations director at Walsall Chamber of Commerce. Through various mergers and amalgamations, the Chamber grew and developed its existing training division – Performance Through People. 

Rob became CEO of Performance Through People in 2003 and oversaw its growth to a multi-million-pound training and apprenticeships provider.  Rob was awarded an OBE in 2022, for services to skills and apprenticeships, receiving congratulations from many individuals, including those who discouraged embarking on an apprenticeship all those years ago.  

Rob took over ownership of the company with a fellow director in 2023 and continues to support the sector in many areas such as being a school governor, a member of the board of University College of Birmingham and a contributor to the Department of Education Provider Reference Panel. 

Rob said: “I am so pleased that the headstrong teenager stuck to his beliefs and took the apprenticeship at Debenhams. Unfortunately attitudes still prevail that an apprenticeship is a second-class career path. All my three Children have taken the apprenticeship route, and my 19-year-old son is part way through his apprenticeship at Jaguar Land Rover. And when my eldest son said he wanted to be an apprentice carpenter 12 years ago, he got the same reaction that I did when I was at school, he now has a highly successful career at a housing association”. 

“However, attitudes are changing and the evidence that apprenticeships are a great way to earn and learn is all around us in the workforce and at management and senior levels.”