Choose Your Own Path With an Apprenticeship

Which Direction

To celebrate the final day of National Apprenticeship Week (14th to 18th March 2016) we sat down with Amanda Cooper, UK Engineering Head of Capability Development at Thales, and Nadia Johnson, a current Thales apprentice, to hear first hand how you really can go anywhere with an apprenticeship.

Rising to the Top with an Apprenticeship – an Interview with Amanda Cooper

As an ex-apprentice herself Amanda talks to us about what they can offer individuals and businesses, and demonstrates just how far you can go with an apprenticeship.

What prompted you to undertake a vocational route into work?

I attended an all-girls Grammar school where I did really well in all the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) subjects but (fortunately as it turned out) failed to get the A-Level results required for automatic acceptance to my chosen University. I decided that I didn’t want to move miles away from my family so looked for something locally that I would enjoy. The local Careers Advice Centre told me about a sandwich Higher National Diploma in Software Engineering which sounded really interesting so I applied. The course was sponsored by a local company so I spent the first year in education, then the next 15 months working in the business before going back to college for a year to finish the course.

What was your progression route after completing your course?

After completing my HND I was employed by the company that sponsored me as a qualified software engineer and have been with them for 27 years now! After building up my skills I became a senior software engineer and later got promoted to team leader, which is something I’d never actually considered myself. I found I really enjoyed working in management so when I was offered the chance to become software manager I was delighted. After I had my daughter a few years later I was looking for a part time role and the only one available at the time was a data entry position, so I did that for a little while and then took on my boss’ role when he left. It was in Resource Management which is a totally different area to what I’d been working in before, but because I’d spent time building up my skills I found I could transfer over relatively easily. I then had the opportunity to work on a few major change projects and was effectively working as a project manager. What I do now as Head of Capability Development is really a culmination of everything I’ve done before, tying it all together. I now get to support Thales UK in engaging with the next generation of employees, and make sure we have all the skills we need to thrive as a business.

What are some of the most exciting things you’ve been involved in?

I have worked on some incredibly exciting projects such as the Typhoon fighter jet and mine-hunting sonar systems. Also, coming third in the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year award in 1999 presented me with a lot of opportunities and really opened my eyes to promoting engineering, especially to girls. I am proud that I am now involved with sponsoring that award in 2016.

What do you think was the best thing about choosing a vocational course?

The best thing is definitely the exposure to the workplace; I started my career straight after school, but still had the opportunity to train and get the qualifications I needed. It made for a much easier transition into work. I got immediate experience of industry, which I wouldn’t have got at university, and because the training was very specific I felt completely ready to start working when I finished my course. The route I took also included a rotation within the business, so even before I started working for the business full-time, I had a really great understanding of all the different departments, how they work and how they contribute to the organisation’s outcomes. I also didn’t have to pay for my training so I never had to worry about paying back any debt.

Are there any negative aspects of this route?

I’d say the stigma is the worst part; even now there’s still a perception that apprenticeships and other vocational routes are not as good or worthy as a degree. But this is definitely not true; thanks to my apprenticeship I got real exposure to the working world, and still had the opportunity for progression and mobility.

What advice would you give to anyone considering an apprenticeship?

I would definitely suggest looking into the new degree apprenticeships available now. All apprenticeships give you work experience that you won’t get as a graduate; you won’t have to worry about student debt, and most employers are very supportive in terms of progression. But with a degree apprenticeship you get trained to degree standard in terms of qualifications and knowledge, while still getting that exposure and experience.

In your opinion, what are the biggest advantages of hiring apprentices for individuals and businesses?

For the individual it means they get trained in a specific field and have all the skills and knowledge they need to move straight into that industry. They also get proper work experience, and there really is no limit to how far you can progress. For businesses apprentices can be hired initially at a lower salary, and there are lots of funding options to allow them to do this which means it is generally a lot cheaper. But more importantly, with an apprentice businesses can train them up to fill the exact skills gaps they have, to the standards and specifications they need, before an individual starts working full time. Once they finish their apprenticeship, employees are already fully inducted into the business and have all the skills needed to work competently, so a company can then just focus on helping them to improve on that rather than starting from scratch.

What’s next for you?

I have just registered as a STEM ambassador so I am looking forward to sharing my enthusiasm for engineering with young people in the near future. I also hope to become a Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

Nadia JohnsonWhat’s it Like to Be An Apprentice? An Interview with Nadia Johnson

What is your current role?

My current role is a Software Engineer Apprentice.

What prompted you to undertake an apprenticeship and why did you opt for the degree route?

I’ve always been the type of person to get stuck in to tasks and it’s the way I’ve always learned best. As you are immersed in meaningful work within the workplace alongside doing your degree part time at university, you have the best of both worlds. You can apply the knowledge you learn and put it in to practice and gain valuable work experience along the way.

How does the degree apprenticeship differ from the other varieties (e.g. length, level of qualification attained, experience gained?)

The length of my apprenticeship is four years long and consists of one day at University completing my degree (Monday) and four days in the office doing on the job training (Tuesday-Friday). After my apprenticeship is completed I will have a fully accredited degree along with 4 years of work experience.

What are the best and worst parts about choosing an apprenticeship?

Thales, the department and especially the team I work in have really helped me significantly while being a new apprentice here. Not only have I been made to feel a valued member of the team from the start, boosting both my confidence and attitude towards work, but I have the benefit of the knowledge of my fellow colleagues who are always more than willing to help me with any issue I have, whether that’s a tricky piece of code I’m stuck with or just general work life. All of which I value highly. The expertise is of a very high standard in my team which helps greatly when trying to understand certain concepts benefiting me in both every day work situations but University work also.

I’ve also been heavily involved in WISE and STEM activities both within the business and outside, but always been supported by Thales.

I wouldn’t say there are any bad parts of my apprenticeship, all I would mention is that it is a lot of work and studying in your own time, but if you’re committed and up for a challenge then it’s a perfect route to take.

What are some of the most exciting projects you’ve been able to get involved in?

I’m currently working on an automated test system for both office wide and project specific use. I’ve been working very closely with very experienced colleagues that take the time to explain the project specific work I’ve been doing. The project is software for SONAR.

What advice would you give to young people considering their career path and apprenticeships in particular?

I would definitely recommend an apprenticeship for those that are keen to learn in a working environment; somewhere you can study and apply the knowledge you obtain at University in a real life situation. You gain so much work experience as you go along, picking up the business systems and what it means to be in a professional environment.

Whether you’re a business considering taking on an apprentice or an individual thinking about embarking on this route, we hope Amanda and Nadia’s stories have inspired you, and shown you just how far apprentices can take people and businesses.  Happy National Apprenticeship Week 2016 from all at Thales Learning and Development.