nicola smith

From apprentice electrical engineer to globetrotting product support specialist � a success story

We interview Nicola Smith, who tells us how she carved her career in ABB, a global power and automation company.

How did you come across ABB?

When I’d finished my GCSEs I saw a Bedford Training Group advertisement in a local paper for people interested in apprenticeships so I went for an initial competency test and they gave me a list of companies that were looking for trainees. I applied to four engineering companies - including ABB’s measurement products business at their facility in St Neots, Cambridgeshire.

What persuaded you to go with ABB?

They were keen! Within three weeks of applying I’d had three interviews and an offer for a four-year apprenticeship – and after I’d consulted a few engineering types I knew who recommended the company, I accepted.

What was your first year like?

For the first year ABB placed me with the Bedford Training Group to learn the basics and study one day a week at college. I learned things like how to weld, do sheet metal work and technical drawing – although the latter I was already pretty well-versed in as my dad is a designer and had me drawing 3D cubes as soon as I could pick up a pencil! During my college day I studied several subjects at the end of which I came away with a Level 2 NVQ in electronics.

As a 16-year-old school leaver was that hard work?

It was quite tough as it’s a bit like going to school but being paid for it. You have deadlines to keep to just like you do at work and if you didn’t finish in time you’d be in trouble. But that was a good thing because it wasn’t such a culture shock when I actually came to work full-time.

And the next three years?

I did them on ABB’s premises – still going to college one day a week to study for my ONC and then for my HNC. ABB’s objective is to give you an all-round experience of how the company works – with a view to specialising in a particular field in your last year.  

In year two I was on the shop floor in manufacturing. That’s the grass roots stuff where you get to know all the people and the system – how to make all the products, and how to test them. The third year I was on a rotation in the office working with the designers where I did things like pre-product testing, then I went to the sales department, the service department, and purchasing etc. In the fourth year I worked specifically as a test technician on the shop floor - testing all the products before they were shipped out to customers.

What happened at the end of your apprenticeship?

Out of all the departments I’d worked in, I enjoyed playing with instruments more so when I’d finished my apprenticeship I was lucky enough to be offered a permanent position as a test technician. And after a year I went on to be a repair technician – doing the day-to-day repair and fault-finding.

How did you come to be a global product support specialist?

As much as I loved working on the shop floor after four years I started to want more of a challenge so I applied within ABB to be a service engineer - which I didn’t get. But in raising my head above the parapet ABB recognised that I wanted to progress and I was picked up for the job I do now.

What does the job entail?

I am now responsible for product support for an entire product line. That means I do the technical support for all our local sales units, which involves flying around the world giving technical and service training.

My job falls into pre-sales and post-sales. For example, with pre-sales I deal with people who need to replace an older or competitor’s product that does a very specific job and they want to know if ABB has a product that can match it. I’ll also write engineering configurations for customers to match the specific jobs that they’ve laid out. In post-sales I help clients with problems they may have setting up a particular product. I also write technical descriptions for product information.

I've spent time in the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, India, China, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Dubai and Europe of course! I’m mainly training local sales and service people on the products, but sometimes I visit customers with problems on site.

Getting to see the products in their natural environments helps with the job, as it can make a lot of difference especially in some of the countries which are still developing as the actual process and plant environment can have a huge effect on how the instrument functions in the real world.

Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

Potentially the next logical step for me would be either going into product management and the marketing side of things where I’d do all the market research for the new products – looking at where the market is heading and decide what the new products are going to be, or going to work abroad as a local sales product specialist – responsible for the product line in that unit.

What advice would you give to young people looking at doing an apprenticeship?

I would say choose something that you really, really want to do. Try to be certain as possible because you are effectively bypassing further full-time study in order to take it on.

Given that an ONC is A level coursework, HNC is first year degree level – it is hard but definitely worth it because you have also got vocational experience and a good work ethic – which is invaluable especially in today’s economic climate. Also many companies, like ABB, are happy for you to extend your education past your apprenticeship – so you will have both a job and be funded to study for an HND or even a degree.  

The rewards of being an apprentice?

My direct boss started as an apprentice – and he’s worked at many of the major players over the years. My colleague who is a product manager also started as an apprentice here – in fact 90 per cent of my team started as apprentices and we’re all in really good jobs.

ABB is a great company to work for – but any good company that has invested time and money in apprentices won’t want to lose them if they can help it. So if you are prepared to stick your neck out and say ‘I need more of a challenge’ – that company will respond because they know you will see it through and succeed.

I love my job – I get to play around with stuff and I get to break things constructively on a daily basis – which suits me better than anything else in the world.

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