Patrick Clarke OBE, director of network operations for UK Power Networks

Apprenticeships: the route to success

Nearly one in five companies currently have ex-apprentices working in a senior management position. We take a look at how an apprenticeship can lead to boardroom opportunities for those with skill and ambition.

In the last City & Guilds top 100 list of Britain’s wealthiest ex-apprentices, former engineering apprentices made up a quarter of the list, while the most represented industries were technology, property and construction, and leisure.

Topping the list of ‘skillionaires’ with £2.5 billion was JCB chairman Sir Anthony Bamford, who started his career with a two-year apprenticeship at Massey Ferguson. Also starring were former Michelin apprentice John Caudwell, founder of Phones4U, Steve Morgan, Chairman of Redrow builders who studied an OND in civil engineering, and Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers – who left school at 15 with no qualifications, did an apprenticeship and now has a bank balance of £55 million.

And it’s not just a case of a lucky few. In December 2013 a report published as part of the City and Guilds Top 100 Apprenticeship Employers list found that nearly one in five companies currently have ex-apprentices working in a senior management position. Almost half the businesses in the construction sector employ former apprentices in board-level positions, followed very closely by manufacturing and engineering, agriculture, and energy and power.

Patrick Clarke OBE, director of network operations for UK Power Networks

One such former apprentice is Patrick Clarke OBE, director of network operations for UK Power Networks. He is responsible for managing the distribution of electricity to a quarter of the UK population and holds the purse strings for about £600m of spend on engineering projects annually.

Lowly beginnings in a poor neighbourhood of Jamaica and a difficult transition into British life had a negative effect on Clarke’s early academic performance but also fuelled his desire to succeed. Despite being an under-achiever at school Clarke nevertheless scored top marks in his apprenticeship entrance exams for his organisation, then known as the London Electricity Board.

“Adapting to British life was tough and I didn’t do well at school but my chance to shine was coming,” says Clarke. “I began as an apprentice in the electricity industry and can honestly say that the opportunities are limitless for those with skill and ambition, who are prepared to work hard.”

Clarke spent the first 12 years of his career as a jobbing electrical engineer before realising that his greatest strengths lay in commercial and people management. He went on to complete an MBA in management and then worked in contracting. Climbing his way up the career ladder Clarke later became human resources director, connections director eventually arriving at his current role of network operations director. In 2008 he was also Prince Charles’s London ambassador for leadership and diversity and in 2013 was awarded an OBE for services to black and minority ethnic youth mentoring.

“My advice to young people considering a future in our industry is to complete your academic studies to the best of your ability, work hard on your apprenticeship and find solid mentors who will show you the right way,” Clarke states.

“Don’t accept mediocrity or be afraid to do things that are different if they move a company on. Spend a few years learning your trade but don’t remain there if you want to progress. Understand your ambitions and move in that direction – if you follow that advice it’s possible to rise from apprentice to the executive team and even CEO – my next aspiration!”

Baljit Bhogal, building services engineer, WSP

Another former apprentice who has his feet firmly planted on the career rungs is Baljit Bhogal. Realising that the traditional route to uni wasn’t for him, Bhogal opted for a formal apprenticeship. He completed City & Guilds, BTec and an ONC, went on to study a BEng and is now a building services engineer with leading UK engineering consultancy WSP.

“Like many trainees working on site I too was sent to the stores to ask for a long weight and to get a spirit level without a bubble,” quips Bhogal. “But the most difficult part of site work was gaining trust of colleagues - showing them I was capable and genuinely interested in learning. I demonstrated this by asking questions, watching and putting myself forward every time there was an opportunity to help out. Once I had demonstrated I was capable of doing a task effectively that trust started to build.”

Bhogal found that the combination of working and studying had all-round advantages.

“Being at college while on my apprenticeship provided me with both theory and practical knowledge which I could then apply to my work and even share new tricks passed from lecturers with my work colleagues,” Bhogal says.

His apprenticeship was structured so that he rotated every few months to work with different people within the company. This allowed him to learn a wide range of different skills and observe how individual solutions can be applied.  

“I was employed by WSP while studying for my BEng and working in a study group designing systems which previously I had either been installing or maintaining. I was at an advantage compared to the full-time students as, for example, when the lecturer talked about a central heating system, I could picture a building and all the associated components involved – and was able to bring both the practical and theory together.”

Bhogal is currently studying for his MSc in energy and sustainable building design and has been a finalist for CIBSE and ASHRAE Graduate of the Year Award in 2012.

“My apprenticeship laid strong foundations for my career,” he says. “There are many companies out there who can offer great apprentice packages and getting signed up will afford you an opportunity to gain practical experience while obtaining academic qualifications by attending college in block or day release formats. Joining professional engineering institutes and attending local seminars also allows you to discover new technologies and the chance to network with like-minded apprentices who are also starting on their career paths.”

Laura Pringle, RAF apprentice aircraft carpenter

Although she setout only recently, 20-year-old Laura Pringle’s ascent of the apprentice route shows no sign of abating. She began an intermediate apprenticeship in engineering and manufacturing technologies at Royal Air Force Museum, Cosford in 2010. She currently is the museum’s only apprentice aircraft carpenter, working on the restoration of pre-World War One wooden aircraft.

“I opted to do an apprenticeship because I have always loved a 'hands on' approach to working and learning,” says Pringle. “I chose RAF Cosford because I’ve always been interested in history – and the museum also offers a different yet brilliant version of an apprenticeship.”

With a Diploma Level 1 Certificate and NVQ Level 2 in carpentry and joinery under her belt, Laura is working towards a Diploma Level 2 with support of the City of Wolverhampton College.

“My core trade is carpentry, but throughout my four-year apprenticeship I have also honed many other techniques, such as engineering hand skills that enable me to assist technicians on larger projects,” explains Laura.  “I have also expanded my studies to follow a training and development role, by doing courses such as City & Guilds’ PTTLS (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector) and management of coaching and mentoring. In ten years time I hope to be in a training and development post, working towards training management.”

Laura has also become a STEM ambassador, working to inspire young people in aeronautics and technology. She regularly hosts apprenticeship demonstrations at the museum and promoted “Young People in Aviation” at the House of Lords. In the 2012 Apprenticeship Awards Laura bagged the title Intermediate Apprentice of the Year.

“I believe that there is never a wasted qualification and I would urge everyone, no matter at what level of education to give 110 per cent,” stresses Laura. “If you want to work and learn, an apprenticeship course is an ideal way of putting your studying into practice.”

These are but a few resounding apprenticeship success stories. Not surprising then that research for the City and Guilds Top 100 Apprenticeship Employers list also revealed that 89 per cent of company bosses said they would opt to do an apprenticeship if they were starting out in their career now.

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