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Back Story: Anna Gates, “I have learned so much more through real-life experiences.”

Image credit: Sarah Plater Photography

Dr Shini Somara talks to Anna Gates, a civil engineering degree apprentice who, at the age of 20, is clocking up useful industrial experience at the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant.

Shini Somara: Why did you choose an engineering apprenticeship over a full-time degree course at university?

Anna Gates: My school was quite keen for me to follow a traditional route towards a university degree and I did study maths, physics, and geography A Levels at school. But I was keen to take a ‘hands-on approach’ to my career, where I could learn about the practical side of engineering, while also obtaining a university degree. I researched doing a civil engineering degree, and during this process found out about degree apprenticeships, which were relatively new at the time. The more I looked into it, the more it appealed to me. I must admit that in applying for this route, I had to get rid of a huge number of stereotypes in my own head about apprenticeships.

Most people think that apprentices are just there to make the tea, but if there is one major lesson I have learned from my apprenticeship experience, it is how to be organised and manage my time. I am having to juggle eight weeks of university lectures per year, which requires the completion of coursework, assignments and exams, while juggling my job and putting together my application for my Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) accreditation. I usually work during the evenings and weekends to get everything done, so the idea of having time to make myself or anyone else a cup of tea is a luxury.

Another common myth is that apprentices only graduate with low-level qualifications and stay at that low level for the rest of their lives. People often think apprentices are not as educated because they do not get degrees. From my experience, however, my time as an apprentice has been an extremely steep learning curve, where we have crammed so much education and experience into an extremely short space of time.

My learning hasn’t been traditional – I have learned so much more through real-life experiences and observing experts at work. Now, over three years in, I have been given a huge amount of responsibility in my role, which I never would have imagined when I was leaving school after my A Levels.
SS: What are the advantages of doing an apprenticeship, in your opinion?

AG: An apprenticeship is not for everyone, but for me personally, it has allowed me to directly apply the knowledge I gain at university to real-world applications. The first and second years were really tough, but now in my third year I have really found my stride and my confidence has skyrocketed. I have gained so much experience and I get a real sense that I am a valuable and necessary part of the 7,000-strong workforce employed at Hinkley Point C. It has been quite an incredible journey.

Starting in the industry with limited knowledge of nuclear power, but with a real passion for the environment and a need to do my bit to slow down climate change, I have worked my way up to being an essential part of connecting people on site. I am often the link between departments, which has let me get to know some incredible people in this industry. I have a newfound network on LinkedIn, which is something I would not have built at this point in my career as a university student.

I’m so happy to be part of an industry that aims to supply low-carbon power to six million homes. I absolutely enjoy being part of the development of Hinkley Point C. The apprenticeship has allowed me to gain experience in several different departments of the site and settle into the environmental department, where I work with our contract partners to ensure Hinkley Point C is adhering to the highest standards. Nuclear energy requires heightened safety regulations so nuclear power remains the most consistent and reliable source of renewable energy in the UK.

The sheer scale of the site allows me to contextualise my deep interest in civil engineering. Watching the installation of the columns needed to support one of the largest turbines in the world was a moment I’ll never forget. It made me realise there are many different experts, scientists and engineers all collaborating to build positive solutions so we can be much greener in the future. We are working together to look after our infrastructure for generations to come. For me, this is the biggest reward.

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