Take it from me, apprenticeships are a great way to start your career in engineering

Welcome to my first blog for the National College for High Speed Rail. I am honoured to be given the opportunity to share with you my views and thoughts at this exciting time for high speed rail in the UK in 2017, the year the national college located in Doncaster and Birmingham will open its doors to train the rail engineers of the future.

Apprenticeships are a fantastic way of starting your career. I am speaking from personal experience, as I began my career on the railway as an apprentice in August 1988.  This was at a time when apprenticeships were very unfashionable, and certainly if you were academic, it wasn’t the norm to leave school at 16.

Armed with a collection of mid-range GCSEs, I applied for and secured an apprenticeship with British Rail at their locomotive works in Stratford in East London. Little did I know on that first day, just what would develop in the years to come for me: the people I would meet, the experiences I would have and the life that I would go on to lead, working on large-scale infrastructure programmes such as the Channel Tunnel, West Coast Route Modernisation and Thameslink.

The apprenticeship taught me skills, lots and lots of them – how to work with a variety of materials, how to wire up buildings and machines, how to maintain and repair huge diesel engines and generator sets, and much more besides. However, in truth, just as important as building up my technical knowledge was honing my interpersonal skills. The ability to listen and learn, to build sustainable relationships, to ask challenging questions and importantly, to feel comfortable being challenged back, were just a few of the important skills I was taught.

Nearly 30 years later, I can look back and say that what I learnt in the workplace as an apprentice formed the bedrock of my career. These skills enabled me to work with complex technical information, negotiate challenging environments, understand what motivates people and build sustained relationships, based on trust. The apprenticeship also encouraged me to work independently and manage time effectively. I didn’t know it then, but looking back it was a perfect blend of formal training, work-based learning and life experience, shared with a very diverse cross-section of people.

So, what would I say to those considering starting a career in engineering as an apprentice in 2017? My advice is think about the way you like to learn, and if you choose this path:

  • Keep an open and inquisitive mind, never be afraid to ask questions
  • Build sustainable relationships, some of them might turn into very good personal and professional friendships
  • Take ownership of your learning, find opportunities to push yourself and develop
  • Aim high but be patient, you are at the start of a great career and you are only young once!

If like me, you prefer to approach learning in a more practical and autonomous way and want to embark on a career in engineering, you should check out the website for the National College for High Speed Rail – new apprentices are joining the profession right at the start of the high speed rail revolution, developing future-focused engineering skills which will be in demand around the world for decades to come.

This article was written by Ben Dunlop, practice director – Energy Systems, Transportation at Atkins