AS a businessman from working-class roots, Gavin Whichello is proof that background does not have to rule a person's future.

Having grown up in south east London and spent a stint working on building sites, it was ambition that drove him to gain a degree and pursue a career in the computer science industry.

He entered the technology realm on the cusp of the digital revolution, before Microsoft even existed, and went on to co-found messaging company WinMail and create PC training company Training International.

Decades on, his key role now is as the owner of Qube Learning, and he is also a visiting professor at his alma matter, Surrey University.

Qube Learning, which is based at Milton Park near Didcot, works with employers to provide apprenticeships, traineeships and short courses to learners from the age of 16.

Championing vocational training as an alternative to university, Prof Whichello told the Oxford Times: "The key thing for me is looking at vocational and creative skills rather than just academic skills.

"You don't have to follow the traditional academic syllabus - with apprenticeships you can start at the bottom, start earning immediately and get on the [career] ladder.

"Employers should understand that apprentices will stay loyal to the company, if you give them a pathway to change their life. The whole economy is crying out for people like that.

"Big companies are looking for 'disrupters,' people who aren't just round pegs in round holes.

"Especially with artificial intelligence and robotics coming along, we need more people with thinking skills."

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The father-of-four took over Qube Learning more than a decade ago, consolidating several strands of the company.

He said: "People say it's not a very sexy industry, but actually training was what I was really good at when I was a school teacher.

"When you run a company, you have to inspire people to work with you, not for you.

"The staff at Qube are incredibly diligent - it's a vocation more than a job - and we are one of the largest companies in the industry.

"My ethos is to strike a balance - a company has to have the right numbers to work, but that has to balance with how to treat people that work there and customers."

Prof Whichello graduated in 1974 with a BSc in human and physical sciences, and qualified as a teacher the following year.

He said he worked in schools for three or four years in London, but became 'frustrated' that 'brilliant' pupils from poorer backgrounds were still leaving with no future.

He added: "When I first taught in Lewisham there was a black mayor, and he said to the kids 'don't let the colour of your skin stop you succeeding.'

"I just thought that was absolutely perfect: don't settle for anything.

"I can sympathise with them. I went to a grammar school but didn't fit in there - I would get beaten every week.

"I was very good at maths and sport and was always in the top one, two or three in the class, but I was a bit of a natural rebel."

Last month Prof Whichello was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Outstanding Contribution to Surrey 2019 Award, for his role in various projects at the university including the Surrey Innovation and Digital Enterprise Academy (SurreyIDEA).

Part of the recognition was for his work mentoring several postgraduate and undergraduate students, offering significant financial support during their studies.

Prof Whichello, who cited novelist John Steinbeck as one of his 'great heroes,' said: "We are not on a social crusade, but whenever I take over a company I generally look at the morals and ethics as people need to be rewarded equally. I'm known for promoting younger people into executive roles.

"There is a huge gap between rich and poor, and it's growing. Bridging that is my motivation at the moment.

"I came from a background that didn’t present life-changing opportunities. Re-igniting my relationship with Surrey University all these years later has allowed me to make a difference to others.

"I want to support these young people and give them the chance to change the world.”

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Prof Whichello worked on software companies in Silicon Valley for more than 10 years before returning to the UK, later turning his hand to the higher education sector.

He said some universities focus too much on making money, particularly from high-paying overseas students, rather than benefitting young people in their local communities.

He added: "There are a lot of fluffy degrees floating about out there.

"I think university is important for the social diversity and having a good time, but a lot of people get a shock when they come out."

One strand of Qube Learning is to work with job centres to take on unemployed people, helping them to pave a new career path by offering free courses for skills such as job interviews.

Qube also works with the probation service to help rehabilitate former prisoners into employment.

Prof Whichello said: "If you cut someone off who has committed a crime, they will commit crime again and again.

"There is often talent inside these people, and when you train them up you can get incredible results. People find that they get a second chance at life."

Qube was rated 'good' by Ofsted after its last inspection in 2015, when inspectors said 'learners with significant barriers to learning are supported very well to progress in employment or gain higher-level qualifications.'

It works with more than 100 companies across the country, including supermarket Sainsbury's and pharmacy giant GSK, and has been awarded numerous contracts by the Education Skills Funding Agency, the government provider of skills training for further education.

The Government backed the sector by introducing its apprenticeship levy in 2017, to give employers a more active role in reducing skills shortages and helping to create three million apprenticeships by this year.

Large employers with a pay bill exceeding £3m are required to pay 0.5 per cent from their annual wage bill into the levy, while small employers have to contribute towards training costs.

The funds are ring-fenced for employers to hire an apprentice via about two and a half thousand Government-approved training providers, including Qube Learning.

Prof Whichello said his main aim now was to ensure Qube can continue to thrive as 'a 21st century company.'