The Alternative

Apprenticeships have a profound impact on individuals, business and the economy. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) offers a number of electrical, electronic and mechanical apprenticeships at a world leading research and development organisation. But why would someone choose to do an apprenticeship rather than go to university?

What are apprenticeships?

An apprenticeship is professional training that involves learning from experts on the job. Professions such as medicine, carpentry and masonry are taught by this method.

Who are apprenticeships for?

Apprenticeships are traditionally aimed at 16-year school leavers, and indeed the entry requirements for STFC apprenticeships remains a grade C in GCSE English, Mathematics and Science. However, Phil Atkinson, Group Leader of the Technical, Mechanical and Vacuum Engineering Group at STFC Daresbury Laboratory (and a member of the apprentice class of 1982!), is at pains to emphasise that apprenticeships are not just for 16-year olds:

“These days we offer apprenticeships to clever 18-years olds with good A-levels who are seeking an alternative route to university. Apprenticeships may also be used to up-skill existing staff in, for example, project management. We’ve taken on apprentices up to the age of 45.”

Importantly, apprenticeships are for both sexes. STFC’s apprentice programme provides an environment where women can excel, as STFC’s Lauren Summers proved when she won an ‘Apprentice Achievement’ award for balancing the demands of an apprenticeship and playing ice hockey for Team GB.

Lauren Summers searches for faults in an electrical circuit.
(Credit: STFC)

What do STFC apprenticeships involve?

STFC offers four-year apprenticeships in electrical, electronic and mechanical engineering. The first year is spent at college, where apprentices learn practical skills, such as machining, welding, electronics and electrical wiring, with one day a week dedicated to academic study. On the job training is provided in years 2-4, with apprentices working on various experiments.

On-site learning can be varied as Tom Finch, apprentice electrical technician at STFC Daresbury Laboratory, notes: “Some days I might be helping technicians pull huge cables to an accelerator, while other days I’m soldering a printed circuit board. There is a great variety of work.”

Apprentices graduate with a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ), a Higher National Certificate (HNC) and/or a Higher National Diploma (HND).

What can apprentices achieve?

Apprentices learn both theoretically and practically, and graduate with a rounded skill-set. Simon Beazley, first apprentice at the Diamond Light Source, notes that “after a few months I was able to work on building up complete racks from scratch. I successfully built one that is being used on one of the front ends to control the vacuum systems in the ring.”

While STFC apprentice Jamie Pinnell was "surprised at the level of trust they put in us; within three months I was on a quarter of a million pound manipulator arm helping with a moderator change at ISIS, which was nerve wracking!"

Apprentices also have the opportunity to complete some neat side projects. Luke Bladon, mechanical engineering apprentice at Daresbury Laboratory, has “made a robot that measures radiation, a steam engineer from scratch and a model accelerator.”

2nd year Mechanical Apprentices win at exhibition
(Credit: STFC)

What are the benefits…

…for the apprentice?

Apprentices receive a solid grounding in practical engineering. Tom Finch notes that “you’re trained as a person and a technician – you’re not completely focused a particular job or task. You can gather skills, experience and qualifications.” Luke Bladon feels the apprentice programme has made him more mature: "I’ve learned a wide range of skills and become confident in my work”.

And apprentices are paid or, as Luke puts it: “I realised I could make good money while university students plunge into debt, and be awarded an equivalent qualification. It was a no-brainer.”

…for the employer?

Phil Atkinson highlights the benefit of apprenticeships to employers: “Apprenticeships give employer’s the opportunity to build a workforce around their unique needs. Apprentices know their way around site, where to find people, how to get things done and business logistics. By the end of the programme they are ‘oven-ready’ to be dropped straight into the job.”

…for the economy?

Apprentice programmes turn out highly-skilled technicians that go on to enjoy successful careers in many different industries and make a valuable contribution to the economy.

Apprentice prize giving evening with guest presenter Sarah Cruddas
(Credit: STFC)

Zoe Bowden, Deputy Director and Head of ISIS Operations, nicely sums up these mutual benefits:

“There are many different career routes into engineering, but apprenticeships are seeing something of a renaissance as the cost of university education increases and young people are looking at alternative options. The scheme here takes on anyone with an aptitude for engineering – mechanical, electrical or electronic - and gives them great training opportunities, a qualification and the start of a great career. In fact it's mutually beneficial – apprentices get excellent training and hands-on experience at a cutting edge research facility, and we get highly skilled, highly motivated people who understand who we are and what we do. And it doesn't end here – our apprentices have gone on to use their skills in industry, go back into education at a higher level, or work their way up into senior positions here at ISIS.”

Where can an apprenticeship take you?

Apprentices receive hands-on training that university students do not. Programmes turn out highly skilled, sought after, technicians that go on to enjoy successful careers.

Greg Hudson completed an electronics apprenticeship at Harwell in 1988 before spending five years at the Joint European Torus (JET) nuclear fusion project. He moved to CERN in 1995 as a beam line technician, before becoming a Technical Engineer for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). He states “my time at Harwell taught me to see my tasks in the context of the overall project, and to take responsibility for, and pride in my work. I think this ‘bigger picture’ approach is important.”

Apprenticeships can be the starting point of an exciting career in a variety of sectors including engineering, industry, business, the police force, start-ups and much besides. Phil Atkinson also has “no doubts that an apprenticeship can deliver a PhD”.

Is an apprenticeship for you?

Apprentice Luke Bladon, who will be will be staying on as a full time assembly technician on the new CLARA project at Daresbury Laboratory, sums up: “If you’re a kinetic learner then try an STFC apprenticeship – you’ll never be bored”.

Find out more about STFC apprenticeships.

Apply for an STFC apprenticeship.

STFC Apprenticeships
(Credit: STFC)

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000