Case study

Engineering higher apprentice — Tabitha

After finishing her A-levels, Tabitha took on various job roles before joining BAE Systems as an engineering higher apprentice, which has involved completing a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Portsmouth

Why did you decide to do a higher apprenticeship?

When I first considered doing an apprenticeship, I was already in full-time work. So, I was used to getting a wage and being in a professional environment, which I preferred to full-time study.

The engineering apprenticeship allowed me to make a career change without having to leave work to become academically qualified. It was important for me to have a salary to maintain my independence and stability, while getting the education and experience to take me to the next stage of my career.

What institution are you studying at?

For the first two years of my scheme, I studied with Fareham College - to get my HNC awarded by the University of Portsmouth. The final year of this scheme doesn't include university study, so I'm in my work placement five days a week and preparing to take my Level 4 apprenticeship assessment in spring.

Did you need any previous engineering experience before starting your higher apprenticeship?

No, I didn't need any specific engineering experience, but I had to meet certain GCSE standards and have 240 UCAS points (96 on the new tariff), which had to include STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

The exact requirements can change each year, but after the initial application, the process is more focused on your potential than your experience.

How did you find and apply for your higher apprenticeship with BAE Systems?

I had deferred my place at university and was looking for alternatives when I found out about degree apprenticeships on the GOV.UK website. There was a BAE Systems apprenticeship that happened to be local to me, so I did some more research and found many more apprenticeship opportunities on the BAE Systems website.

Once my written application was accepted, I had to do some online aptitude tests and then went on to the interview stage and was successful.

How does the apprenticeship work?

The scheme lasts for three years, starting in September. The HNC (Level 4) qualification is studied once a week for the first two years. Alongside this, the first few months are spent in a training workshop completing a Level 2 Diploma in Performing Engineering Operations, where you learn about engineering drawings, bench fitting and electrical skills.

After this, you complete a series of four to six-month work placements to get experience of different areas of engineering, and to become familiar with how the business works.

The final year is spent in one team, and this is usually where you'll stay after the apprenticeship. As you move around placements, the day-to-day responsibilities vary, but you'll always hold responsibility for your professional development and managing your time. You also have an end-point assessment (EPA), which determines whether you've met the expectations for the Level 4 apprenticeship standard.

What do you enjoy about your apprenticeship?

The best part about the apprenticeship is the opportunity to move to different teams and figure out the role that suits you. It broadens your experience, which is especially important if you came straight from A-levels or a different discipline.

A different aspect I enjoy is getting involved with STEM events as an ambassador, especially for practical challenges where students have to solve problems using engineering concepts. Moving around the business and being a STEM ambassador are both great ways to meet people from across the business and grow a more diverse network.

What are the challenges?

The biggest one for me has always been balancing my time on the scheme between education, work and home. It can be difficult to focus at work or to rest and relax at home when you're worrying about a college assignment. It's been hard work to keep up with all the deadlines, and it's easy to burn out if timelines don't go to plan.

What support have you received?

I've been given so much support by my managers and colleagues who make time to answer questions and give advice on difficult tasks. We also have regular reviews with our early careers skills coach, so there's an opportunity to raise any concerns.

Another source of support has been the other apprentices, both in my cohort and in other years. They've all been through similar experiences since joining the scheme, so there's usually someone who can help you out if you have questions.

What are your plans for after your apprenticeship?

In September, I should exit my current role and continue to develop my engineering experience, taking on more responsibility. Once I feel confident in the job, I want to challenge myself by taking on a different role in my team. I'm also planning to apply for a part-time Higher National Diploma (HND) or a foundation degree so I can go on to complete a top-up degree course.

What advice would you give to others considering a higher apprenticeship?

  • When you're looking into different apprenticeships, take the time to get to know the company you would be working for. See if you have a real interest in the work they do and find out about their values and policies, such as diversity and inclusion, mental health, and sustainability.
  • If you have the option to relocate, it's worth considering apprenticeships all over the country to give yourself a wider range of possibilities. Moving into a shared house can be a great way to meet people in a new area.
  • Be prepared for the workload and time management challenges. You can end up with lots of overlapping deadlines between university, work and the apprenticeship standard, so communication and planning skills are key.

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