Ever wondered what it’s like to work for The Metropolitan Police? Or whether you’d fit in at JCB, Coca-Cola, or ITV?
Apprenticeships: Skills for Life
National Apprenticeship Week 2024 is the perfect chance for those looking for an alternative to university to learn more about the opportunities available. This year’s theme is ‘Skills for Life’ highlighting how apprenticeships can help young people develop skills for a rewarding career and businesses can build a talented workforce equipped with future-ready skills.
To gain insight into the benefits of apprenticeships, we interviewed Annalee Macfarlane, an Electrical & Electronic Degree Apprentice at Rolls-Royce and Portsmouth High School alumna.
Continue reading for resources on apprenticeships and advice on how to find the right one for you.
A deep dive into apprenticeships
What did you study for your A-Levels? Did you also apply for university courses, and did you receive any offers?
I took A-levels in maths, physics, and chemistry and an EPQ in creative writing – but I almost didn’t! Drama and Spanish were on the cards right up until the last minute. I applied for university alongside apprenticeships and received offers from four Russell group universities and an interview from the University of Oxford.
Why did you decide on an apprenticeship over university?
My main drive was the desire to make a real difference in the world right from day one of my career. I didn’t want to have to wait through several years of study to start having an impact and learn real workplace skills, whether technical or practical. Choosing an apprenticeship allowed me to work on real-life projects I could be proud of and gain qualifications simultaneously. Also, who is going to complain about getting paid to learn?!
How did you find the right apprenticeship for you?
This took a lot of research, not all apprenticeships are easy to find. I focused on my priorities which were a degree-level qualification, studying an area I was passionate about, and the reputation of the company. I applied to a wide range of apprenticeships (around 8 or 9 in total) and would have been happy to take any of them, but I was lucky enough to receive an offer from my first choice company.
Tell us about some of the exciting projects you’ve been part of.
Well, I can’t say too much but I’ve certainly had the opportunity to work on a range of products whilst working for Rolls-Royce. I supported the environmental testing program for a major control system component on a commercial airliner (including using a state-of-the-art fire test cell!) I collaborated with a team based in the USA on a highly sensitive defence project. I also had the opportunity to travel to a plant in Scotland to train as one of the pioneers of an apprentice-driven manufacturing improvement project. I work very close to the airport and every day on my commute, I get to see some of the planes which I’ve helped design and test fly overhead – talk about job satisfaction!
What’s been your biggest learning so far?
Engineering and creating cutting-edge technology aren’t about having all the answers, it’s about being brave enough to try something new and trusting your team’s problem-solving capability. I thought I’d need to learn all the technical knowledge before I could start making meaningful contributions – and whilst I have gained a huge amount of theoretical knowledge, I was able to bring my unique perspective to my working environment even before I had these skills.
Is there anything that has surprised you?
I expected there to be a precise way of doing everything and that I would simply be learning how to fit in with an existing business environment. In reality, every company is always learning and looking for ways to improve their products. The workplace is so different to a school environment. In my industry, we all have to rely on each other to succeed, and my colleagues regularly provide their time and expertise to help me learn and develop.
How will your apprenticeship benefit your future career?
Not only will I walk out of my apprenticeship with a Bachelor’s in engineering and no student debt, I will have four incredibly varied years of experience working in a world-leading company. My industry understanding and workplace skills are miles ahead of where I’d be if I’d taken the standard university route.
Are there any misconceptions about apprenticeships? And if so, what would you say to challenge these?
There are definitely a few. One misconception is that apprenticeship qualifications are inferior to a degree; this is blatantly not the case. If you opt for a degree apprenticeship you receive the same standard of teaching and the same level of qualification as a standard university course will provide. Apprenticeships are also seen as only involving manual labour and whilst these apprenticeships do exist, I am primarily a design engineer. The third misconception is that you’ll be seen as an inferior employee. I work with industry professionals at every stage of their career and those with 15+ years of experience are equally as open to my opinions and ideas.
Do you have any advice for anyone interested in or applying for an apprenticeship?
Go for it! The apprenticeship route might be a less well-understood option, but its benefits are unparalleled. Whilst grades are important, a perspective employer cares far more about your personality and your teachability. Demonstrate your enthusiasm, passion and dedication for whatever it is you’re interested in, and you cannot help but stand out.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
One benefit of an apprenticeship which didn’t occur to me before is just how much it makes me appreciate the academic side of my course. My university-based teaching comes to life when I understand how it fits into my workplace. Not only does the industry context help me remember my studies much better, but it also creates a greater sense of excitement towards the elements of study which could otherwise feel mundane.