Instead of taking A levels after school, Santina started her Level 3 apprenticeship at civil engineering company, Arup, aged 16. Here she speaks about her experience, including why she chose an apprenticeship, what makes a good apprentice, and how she manages working and studying at the same time.

What made you want to do an apprenticeship?

I was one of those people who always knew they wanted to do an apprenticeship from the very beginning. I went to a grammar school and traditionally it was very much about doing A levels, going to university, and studying subjects like medicine and STEM. They were starting to talk about apprenticeships, but I was the only one out of 150 students to do one because everyone went on to do A levels.

I’m really lucky that I have a great family support system who encouraged me to go for it. My brother also did a Level 3 civil engineering apprenticeship at a different company, so he was my role model because while I was still at school, he was telling me what he was doing. Not everyone wants to go into the workplace aged 16, but I knew I’d be ready for that. I’m a person who loves learning constantly, so I liked the idea of continuing my education and also getting professional experience; especially with engineering which is an industry where practical experience is very beneficial.

How did you come across the opportunity and what was the interview process like?

I already knew I wanted to go into engineering because I’d done work experience and a lot of research into the industry. Because I knew what I wanted to do, I researched the top companies to go for. I applied for five different apprenticeships at five different companies.

I applied in October, and they got back to me in March. I then did an interview and an online assessment centre, so I did a lot of preparation and afterwards found out I got the job. It is a very competitive process to go through and there can be a lot of stages, so you’ve got to be prepared for that.

What is the split between working and studying?

I go to college one day a week and I’m at work the other four days. I personally find it really manageable because I’m organised, and I like to keep on top of things. I have two exams throughout my apprenticeship, but most of my course is assignment-based, so when I go to college, I use that time to do assignments.

The good thing about being an apprentice is work understand that I have college work and assignments, and you're not always going to be super busy at work. So, if you aren’t on any projects, you can use that time to work on assignments. I wouldn't actually say that I spent a lot of time working on it during weekends or after work, but that's mostly because I use my time well.

I don't think the balance of work and study is something for people to overly worry about, as long as you manage your time effectively and have open conversations with your line manager about how things are going. They understand it can be hard working and studying at the same time so they can make adjustments for you if you need them. With most companies, you also get study leave and they're quite good at making sure you don't feel stressed and overwhelmed.

Have you got that support at college as well as at work?

I’ve found the support really good because the tutors understand that we’ve got full-time jobs and we're not full-time students. With the deadlines for our assignments, we usually have three to four weeks to get them done and if you do need an extension, you can explain and most of the time they will make the adjustments

What do you do in your day-to-day role?

I’m a technician, and the good thing about my job is I work on a range of different projects, from small initiatives in my local area to big projects based in India and big road schemes. They start you off with small things but then build it up as you get more competent.

A lot of the stuff that I do is to do with data. So, managing data, processing it, and creating drawings as well. It's really good because my line manager took the time to explain all these tasks to me. Every apprentice also has a buddy, so there’s someone there to help if you need them. As you get more experience, you do get harder tasks which is good because I like to be challenged. If I'm stuck, I can ask any of my colleagues; they're all so happy to hear what I've got to say.

What’s the social life like and have you made friends?

Yes! Some people definitely have the fear of missing out when they do an apprenticeship, and at the start I did get that a little bit because you come from being in a school environment where you see your friends every single day. But because I've got such a strong support system, and friends who I know are going to be in my life for a long time, that didn't worry me.

At work, I made friends with the people on the graduate scheme and now we're starting to have way more socials which is definitely more fun now I’ve turned 18. It was a little bit harder in the beginning because I was 16. 

What each company offers is individual to them and the way their programme is set up. We've got graduates who’ve got a social club and specific people who organise it.

Santina, Level 3 apprentice at Arup

I know it’s a big adjustment going from school to the work environment, but I wouldn't let that stop you because you'll make friends wherever you go.

What are your plans for when you finish your current apprenticeship?

My apprenticeship is three years’ long, but I'm aiming to complete it a year earlier. At the moment I’m doing my end-point assessment, which is an assessment you take at the end of your apprenticeship. You have to demonstrate you can carry out your job responsibilities and that you have the knowledge and skills for the role.

Throughout my apprenticeship I've had to make something called a portfolio which I have to map against certain knowledge, skills, and behaviours and gather evidence about what I’ve done. I have to do a technical task, a brief, and then a presentation. I'll present it and then I’ll know if I've passed my apprenticeship and what grade I’ve got. In the meantime, I still get my college certificate which is a BTEC qualification. Although it's attached to the apprenticeship, it's still a qualification you get regardless of whether you pass the apprenticeship.

After that, hopefully I’ll go onto a Level 6 degree apprenticeship at the University of Warwick. I’m keen to do that programme because it offers block release, whether you go to uni for one week a month, and I can live in halls for that week. Some unis offer a day release which is where you go to uni one day a week instead, but I think block release will suit me better.

Are there any particular pros or cons to doing an apprenticeship?

I think the biggest consideration is an apprenticeship might not suit someone who doesn't know what they want to do. Because I knew what I wanted to do, it was the best route for me to get into the industry. But if you don't really know, then maybe taking a gap year or going to uni to study something more generic might be better. It’s all about what works best for you.

Having said that, you can still do an apprenticeship and if at the end of it you don't think it’s for you, but you've got your qualification, you've been paid, you've got experience in the workplace and then you can easily hop onto another apprenticeship or course.

In terms of the positives, it's on the job experience while getting paid. You're already in the workplace, and not many people can say that they started work when they were 16. I'm gaining so many specific skills in my industry and am building up my knowledge about engineering. You're also building up those interpersonal skills like communication and organisation, and having lots of training whether that's through shadowing someone, being mentored, or doing online CPD.

What do you think makes a good apprentice?

The biggest thing is you've got to be open, and you've got to put yourself out there because as an apprentice the world is your oyster and you've got so many opportunities to shadow people, work on different teams, and contribute to different tasks. I'm always so eager to ask what I can help out with and what I can learn about. 

It's all about being open and honest. If you can't do something, just say and people won’t be angry with you because they know you're learning. I also think you've got to have good organisational skills because it can be a lot when you’re juggling work and college. So, you’ve got to be on the ball.

Santina, Level 3 apprentice at Arup

There’s also lots of stuff you can do outside of work too if you take the opportunities. I'm on an apprentice panel for the Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education and it means I've helped working with the Department of Education to influence some policies.

What are you most proud of so far?

I was recently shortlisted for the multicultural apprenticeship awards and I also won an Institute of Civil Engineering quest scholarship award. I was also asked to give the opening remarks at a House of Lords event which was crazy because I never thought I’d get to go there. Lastly, at college, I was awarded ‘student of the year’ for my course. 

What advice would you give to anyone who's considering an apprenticeship but isn’t sure?

I would say definitely give apprenticeships the time of day and don't just discard them as an option. Make sure you do your research into the different industries and the different levels because it can be a bit confusing to someone to decide which level to start at. So, research that and think about what skills you're good at because it's not always about qualification. For example, if you did maths at school, maybe you have an analytical mind, what can link to that? So, think broad and think wide. Also don't be afraid to email someone from the company if you manage to find a contact. I think the key word is proactive; be proactive.