This week is National Apprenticeship Week in the UK, which is a government-led celebration of all things apprenticeships aiming to showcase this career option. I will mostly be talking about engineering higher apprenticeships as this is where my experience lies, but a lot of the discussion will be relevant to apprenticeships in all fields and levels (particularly STEM careers). I am going to take you through my personal experience of apprenticeships, discuss the careers options that are available and ultimately explain why I think an apprenticeship is the best way into a career in engineering.
Tip: You can search #NAW2021 for great apprenticeship content across all social media platforms.
Firstly, I would be interested to find out what your route was into your career, regardless of what your career is or if you’re still on the route to this career. There are so many different routes that you could possibly take, but I have narrowed this down to the three main options that are readily available. If you have had a different route into your career then please leave a comment, as I would love to hear how you got to where you are!
What is an Apprenticeship?
First things first, I will start with the basics….what actually is an apprenticeship? The fundamental concept of an apprenticeship is being hired by a company, who are committed to offering you a structured training programme including paying for the relevant education courses. In general, you will be hired in a particular role (i.e. Apprentice Calibration Engineer), which you will fulfil for a period of the working week whilst completing your studies on day release.
When you start an apprenticeship you will have a clear roadmap of duration, salary, educational commitment and work placements. This will be different for all companies, but as an example you will know you are joining a three year programme, with a wage increase of £x per year and you will come out of it with an NVQ Level 3 and a BTEC qualification.
I imagine most of you will be familiar with the general concept of apprenticeships, but the various types that are available have changed significantly over the last few years. I have compiled a table below which gives a basic overview of the different levels of apprenticeships currently available in the UK, which are open to everyone over the age of 16.
|Apprenticeship Name||Level||General Entry Requirements||Equivalent Education Level|
|Higher||4 and above||GCSEs and A Levels||Level 4: Foundation Degree |
Levels 5 and above: Bachelor’s Degree
|Degree||6-7||GCSEs and A Levels||Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree|
The general entry requirements are very vague as different companies will have distinct expectations – for all levels it is acceptable for relevant experience to be considered as opposed to formal qualifications, so you should always check directly with the company you are applying to. For each level, the equivalent vocational qualification is also usually acceptable (i.e. NVQ Level 3 instead of A Levels), but I have focussed on the more ‘traditional’ education route for ease of comparison.
These different apprenticeships are constantly evolving – for example when I started at JCB in 2015 the ‘Degree’ level apprenticeship still wasn’t founded. This meant that JCB ran the ‘Higher’ level apprenticeship, and if you were performing well at work and at college then you had the option to do a ‘top up’ full Bachelor’s Degree, which was also funded by JCB.
Different companies will run their apprenticeship schemes in diverse ways, which means it is always important to research and apply for as many apprenticeship schemes as you can. Some companies will guarantee you a job at the end, maybe include additional benefits such as offering further education or even provide more of a university style community with shared housing. There are so many available options, which means that there is sure to be an apprenticeship out there which would suit you individually.
My Engineering Apprenticeship Experience
When I finished my A Levels in 2010, ‘Higher’ or ‘Degree’ Apprenticeships weren’t available, so the two options for me were either to go into the world of work or go to university. I chose the former option, as the university lifestyle wasn’t for me, and I had been offered a full-time job at the Ducati dealership I had been working as a trainee mechanic for at weekends and in my holidays.
For five years I had a brilliant time working for various dealers and in the British Superbike paddock, but by 2015 I was ready to advance both my career and my education. I was unfamiliar with the concept of a Higher Apprenticeship, but my Crew Chief worked at JCB and was well versed in their engineering apprenticeships, so he spurred me on to apply. My application was successful and by August 2015 I found myself joining JCB on their three-year programme as a 24 year old apprentice.
Over the course of my apprenticeship I completed the following:
- NVQ Level 4 Extended Diploma in Engineering
- Foundation Degree in Integrated Engineering
- Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering
- 2x eight-week placements in different business units of JCB
- STEM Ambassador training and support of various events
- Engineering Technician professional registration with the IMechE
- IOSH Managing Safely qualification
- JCB Loadall ‘Built by Apprentices’ project (spot me on the promotional YouTube video about the project – JCB ‘Made by Apprentices’ AGRIPro Loadall Charity Auction – YouTube)
And all of this was alongside working as a Development Engineer four days a week, during which I learned so many skills to compliment my education. I wanted to share all of this to give a flavour for what kinds of things you can be exposed to whilst doing an apprenticeship, it really is so much more than ‘just getting a degree paid for’ which can be the focus in the media.
I was very fortunate to be part of a close-knit cohort of eight other apprentices who were a great support network whilst joining a new company and also throughout our studies. JCB run very good engineering apprenticeships, with great advisors who really look after you and make sure you get the best out of your time on the scheme, but also put you forward for so many opportunities. It was through the ‘Early Careers’ team that I was nominated for various apprenticeship awards, which was another side to my time as an apprentice that helped expand my comfort zone and increase my network significantly.
I completed my apprenticeship in Summer 2018, was offered a full-time position in the role I had been in during my time as an apprentice, and finally graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in Summer 2019. I feel like my apprenticeship set me up perfectly to step into the full-time working world as an engineer, it felt like a seamless transition which is testament to the brilliant engineering apprenticeship schemes that JCB run.
Benefits of Completing an Engineering Apprenticeship
As you may have already picked up on, I’m a big fan of apprenticeships! However, if you’re not quite convinced yourself then I have picked out the biggest benefits (in my opinion) to completing an engineering apprenticeship.
Learning on the job
You immediately apply what you’re learning at university into your job, but you are also gaining much more experience than you are being taught in your studies. Compared to either just starting as a ‘trainee’ in a company without any formal apprenticeship framework or going to university, you really do get the best of both worlds and end up becoming a much more well-rounded engineer, in a shorter period of time! You will find once you’ve completed your programme that you are already very good at your job, and the qualification is more of a formality rather than significantly impacting your day job.
Support from your company with your studies
This comes in the form of colleagues helping you out if you’re stuck with a particular software, subject or you could just do with another pair of eyes on your work. There will be a lot of people you work with who are recent graduates, so they will be in a great position to really help you get the most out of your studies.
The secondary benefit to this is that you will be supported really well by the apprenticeship scheme leaders, who at the end of the day are paying for your studies so will support you to ensure they get the best out of you. You will likely receive ‘study days’ on the lead up to exams, leniency with your workload around exam time, or just have someone you can talk to about issues with your course or anything like that.
No dissertation dramas
The amount of people that I know (who studied engineering particularly) have suffered with dramas with their dissertations, which is the last thing you need in your final year at university. Often in engineering it is expected that you complete a project at a company, which means organising this but then also being able to make it happen…I know of several people whose projects were pulled, delayed or impacted so they weren’t able to use this for their dissertation.
As being an (almost) full-time member of your team, you have much more control over your destiny when it comes to your dissertation! You’re able to start planning what you are going to do earlier because you already work there, your manager will be supportive of finding something good for you to do, and the timing will be held because they are invested in making sure it works out.
It was also a great opportunity (for me) to have a real deep dive into an area of my role, in much more detail than would ordinarily be possible. It meant that I was able to increase my understanding on a topic that was heavily related to my job, and I really enjoyed my project as it was directly relevant and immediately applicable to me. I think this must have paid off, as I won the ‘Best Project’ Award from Birmingham City University for my dissertation!
No distractions during your final year of studies
This is a huge one for me, and potentially I would consider this the biggest benefit to completing an apprenticeship. Whilst your peers will be chasing around trying to land a place on a graduate scheme, you know that you will continue with your company you’ve been with for a number of years by this point, and not a lot will really change for you. Okay so this isn’t guaranteed, but to be honest you’ve got to be a real joker to not be offered a job once you’ve finished your apprenticeship – at the end of the day your company have invested a lot in you (time and money) so they won’t want to let you go.
Not having the pressure of working out what your next move is going to be is such a huge weight off your shoulders, which means you can truly focus on your studies and getting the most of your education.
As mentioned earlier in this article, you will often get involved in other things as part of the scheme (professional registration, STEM ambassador, team building events, awards etc.). This is such a huge bonus because aside from being a lot of fun, it builds up your professional experiences, networks and also gives you a huge confidence boost.
No fees, student loans or crippling debt to start your adult life with!
Well, I couldn’t talk about the benefits of being an apprentice without mentioning the obvious financial gain! If you weren’t already convinced, then this should be the final nudge you need to start looking at doing an apprenticeship…
Whilst you don’t only earn a full-time wage as an apprentice (which can be pretty competitive now many companies have their own schemes), all of your educational fees are fully paid for by your company. This means that you won’t have to pay for your degree, you won’t need a student loan because you have a ‘proper’ income, so once you graduate you can just enjoy your salary!
This is such a huge benefit especially with university fees currently at £9,000 a year, you can save so much money and really be in a very good financial position by the end of your apprenticeship. A lot of my fellow apprentices were able to buy houses following graduation, which just shows how much of an impact this can really have on your life.
Downsides to Apprenticeships
There must be a catch?
Sounds too good to be true? Well, it isn’t all positives but that’s how life goes…
An apprenticeship is undoubtedly a harder pathway than going to university, as you have to balance a ‘proper’ full-time job alongside studying. There will be late nights, weekends where you don’t emerge from behind your screen, and days when you question why you’ve put yourself through this. The hardest for me was my first semester at Birmingham City University, when we were scheduled in lectures from 8am until 7pm – at the end of the day they have to fit the same amount of content into one day a week as opposed to a full time schedule!
You may feel like there is pressure on you from your company to do well, they are paying for your education after all so will expect certain results. However, in my experience this isn’t overburdening – they simply expect you to put the effort in and make the most of the opportunity. If you aren’t a straight A student they won’t be expecting you to suddenly turn into one just because they’re paying.
One (slightly amusing) downside to apprenticeships is due to their own success! Because this is now considered such a good route into a career, there is a lot of competition to get onto the leading apprenticeship schemes. This pushes companies to be more selective when they’re hiring which can be disheartening…however I would honestly advise you to apply for all the schemes that you are interested in. Expect to face some rejection, you’ll probably have to do a lot of assessment centres and levels of the application process – but all of this will stand you in good stead anyway, as this is what you’ll probably face for most of your career.
As they have funded your education, there will also usually be a time commitment to the company once you finish your studies. This is a reasonable agreement seeing as they’ve saved you a lot of money, but it is worth checking what that is before you sign on the dotted line as this can vary a lot. I’ve heard from periods from two up to ten years, which is a significant thing to consider when signing up for an apprenticeship scheme.
Degree Apprenticeship or University?
The final area I’m going to summarise is the direct question around whether you should go to university versus a degree apprenticeship. I’ve discussed a lot of points relating to this throughout my post, but there are a couple of key takeaways I wanted to make clear.
University is great for the lifestyle, moving away from home and really immersing yourselves in your studies. You will get a chance to be a part of various societies based on your personal interests, do placements (maybe abroad) and will form a close-knit group of friends. You will also have plenty of free time to spend on extra-curricular activities, do some work experience or just remove as much stress as possible from your studies.
However, I would challenge that an apprenticeship would also offer you most of these perks in a slightly different way. You will have to be more creative, but the same opportunities are out there if you choose to go down the apprenticeship route. Some companies will be much more involved in creating a ‘university-rivalling’ environment than others, but there is plenty you can look out for yourself.
JCB have company sports teams (5-a-side football), organise events (5km fun runs), and have company shared accommodation which you can choose to rent a room in when you join the company. If your company doesn’t, then you can easily take this into your own hands…for example I joined the Derby Braves Women’s American Football team when I started at JCB, to make friends in my new local area. You can also join in house shares which are advertised online, and many companies are near universities so you can partake in the student nights out in the city!
You will also more than likely form a close bond with your apprenticeship peers, students from other companies on your courses and your new work colleagues, so you won’t be short of opportunities to make new friends!
I can see why people would choose both options, but I honestly think if your chosen career has a potential apprenticeship route into it, then it is worth following that path. If you are concerned that it’s going to be ‘too much hard work’ or you’re worried about missing out on nights out until the early hours and not getting up until the afternoon…then I would say that you should go to university and get that out of your system before you hit the real world!
Overall, I can’t recommend apprenticeships enough especially if you are considering a career in engineering. If I think about how much experience I have gained over the last five years, along with the qualifications I’ve gained and friends I’ve made, I absolutely would not be where I am today if I hadn’t gone down this route.
Thinking about looking into an apprenticeship? Every year there is a ‘league table’ which is produced, which ranks the top 100 apprenticeship employers for that year. This is a great resource when trying to identify the companies to approach about their apprenticeship schemes, which I discussed in my Top 100 Apprenticeship Employers 2020 blog post last year.
If you would like to discuss apprenticeships, whether it’s my personal experience or recommendations for things to look out for when choosing an apprenticeship, then please feel free to comment or email me at email@example.com.
The Female Engineer