Network Rail apprentices in workgroups

Life after an apprenticeship

Career paths and education opportunities post-apprenticeship are many and varied – we take a look at what some past apprentices have gone on to achieve since completing their schemes.

What do Sir Anthony Bamford, chairman of JCB, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and Phones4U founder John Caudwell all have in common? Well, aside from reaching the very top of their professions, they are all former apprentices.

The JCB chairman served a two-year apprenticeship at Massey Ferguson, Sir Alex was an apprentice toolmaker in the Govan shipyards when he left school, while entrepreneur John Cauldwell worked as an apprentice engineer at Michelin Tyre Company. Indeed, you don’t have to look far for more examples: Mark Barclay, who is senior vice president, head of wing and pylon centre of excellence at Airbus and the former chief operating officer at Thales UK, began his career in 1980 as an apprentice mechanical craft engineer at Barr and Stroud in Glasgow.

The importance of apprenticeships

Speaking at the Unite/Cogent conference on the theme of investing in young people last November at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester, Sir Alex, one of the best identifiers and nurturers of talent in the country, highlighted the importance of apprenticeships to both the individuals and industry.

“It is only when you had the opportunity to have an apprenticeship did you realise the long term benefit. Anyone who had that experience will have appreciated the skills they learned,” he said, adding, “over a long period in our industry, apprenticeships have been neglected and that has to change. Great Britain was admired throughout the world for its ability to produce quality through the craftsmanship of its workforce and now is the time to bring about a regeneration of those times.”

Apprenticeships provide solid groundings for a long-term career

For those prepared to put the hard work in, an apprenticeship provides one of the most solid groundings for a long-term career in a chosen profession or industry. The majority of schemes in the engineering and technology sector are of high quality and as well as the package of work experience, skills and qualifications gained while serving the apprenticeship, committed individuals can look forward to onward career progression as well as the opportunity for further study.

Network Rail offers a three-year advanced apprenticeship and, even after the first year, apprentices are already thinking about their career options.

“Many set their sights on becoming technical officers and team leaders and managers,” says a spokesperson, adding, “we now have the building blocks in place so that beyond their apprenticeships, our people can continue their education and training. We fund around 40 apprentices a year to do a part-time HNC in engineering. The best are then supported to do foundation degrees, undergraduate degrees and reach chartered engineering status. They can earn while they learn and go as far as their aptitude, attitude and ambition can take them.”

Education sponsorship

Charles Heseltine completed an electrification and plant apprenticeship and following this applied for a job as the senior technical officer working for the electrification and plant department at a delivery unit. Alongside this, after finishing his apprenticeship he was sponsored to do an HNC in mechanical engineering and attended a course at the Fire Service College to develop leadership skills.

“I’ve had a promotion now and am the principal technical officer for electrification and plant and I’ve also just received sponsorship to attend Sheffield Hallam University to study for a foundation degree in railway engineering."

Semta, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies, has appointed several former apprentices as business champions to help businesses improve their competitiveness through effective training and development. One of them is Ken Toop, who served as an apprentice toolmaker which he says prepared him for a wide and varied range of engineering careers including tooling designer, production engineer, project manager, training officer and health and safety/maintenance manager.

No limit to academic achievement

Toop also blows apart the myth that doing an apprenticeship might in some way limit the path to academic achievement. During his career he gained two two HNCs in production and mechanical engineering, a NVQ level 4 in engineering design, HND in mechatronics and a BSc in mechatronics and manufacturing.

He is presently studying for a MPhil in biological sciences in bio-fuel economics and life cycle assessment. Over the years he has been involved in training apprentices and says he always asked them to document what they wanted to do at the end of the apprenticeship and on completion reviewed this to see if their perception and aims had changed.

“Most would exceed what they had set out to do and this enabled them to go onto bigger and better things,” he says.

Career paths post-apprenticeship

Lee Griffiths, a Semta business partner in South-East England, studied avionics in the RAF and joined Bosch as an electrical apprentice, qualifying with an HNC in mechatronics. He emphasises that career paths post-apprenticeship are many and varied.

“It could involve aiming for promotion and working your way up to management and depending on the type and size of the company you may have the opportunity to move into different areas and develop and learn new skills,” he says.

“Even if one day you may wish to leave the industry, you can still make use of your trade, skills and experiences by passing it on to a younger generation and becoming a lecturer in a college or university. Whatever the case may be, having completed an apprenticeship is widely recognised and highlights you’re a skilled, hard- working individual and would be a real asset to any organisation.”

Gaining highlight transferable specialist skills

Some individuals fear an apprenticeship may pigeonhole them in a role or career but vocational study can impart highly transferable specialist skills. Matt Canham took an advanced apprenticeship as a metallurgist with Bridon International, a specialist in the manufacture of steel wire and rope, and says while at school he was scared of becoming a one-trick pony and “stuck in that one thing forever”. His fears have been totally unfounded though.

“Metallurgy is interesting, very, very broad and very enjoyable,” says Matt, who is studying part-time for a foundation degree in materials at Sheffield Hallam University and aims to complete a full degree. “Every sort of skill you learn as a metallurgist you can transfer to any type of industry.”

After completing the course, he started work as a technical officer in Bridon’s centre of excellence where experts from different fields carry out research and development.

“Whilst being very similar to my previous jobs, it’s a much broader role with much more responsibility and authority. I’m getting involved in work with other materials such as carbon fibre, nylon and various polymers, not just metal,” he says. “I don’t feel stuck at all in what I’m doing and there’s always the opportunity for me to further my knowledge and skills.”

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