I live in a deprived part of Manchester and it's a postcode that unis often pick up on to make contextual offers, especially if your parents haven’t gone to uni. We had quite a lot of unis coming into school and speaking to us, and I was a high-performing student. But, we also had apprenticeship providers come into our school because not many people went on to do a traditional university degree.
In my 3rd year of secondary school, Manchester Metropolitan University came in to speak to us about their apprenticeship programme and they explained how apprenticeships worked, and I thought, wow. So I don't have to go to uni and worry about performing well in traditional exams and essay writing? I can actually go out and learn from working? I just fell in love with it, and I told every teacher I was doing an apprenticeship.
When I told my parents, my mum, who never went to uni, was really supportive but said it sounded too good to be true. She was worried because she still believed that getting a degree was the most important thing. But then I told her you could get a degree through an apprenticeship. My dad is Persian, and he has a very traditional mindset, so he thought the only way 'to survive in this world' would be to go to uni, but we warmed him up to the idea. We sat down and explained to him that I could still get the degree but in a way that suited me better.
Then I chose my A levels. I've always wanted to be a people manager, so I chose general A levels that complemented those roles. I chose English Language because you’ve got to talk to people and understand what they’re trying to say. Maths, because you’ve got to understand how data works, and psychology because you’ve got to work with people. My college still pushed me to fill out a UCAS application for a traditional degree, but when we had time to work on personal statements, I worked on cover letters.
I found my apprenticeship on the Government website, and I investigated further by visiting the BT career website. And that was the cycle I got into when looking for apprenticeships.
I applied for my first apprenticeship at the end of college, but I didn’t get it initially. They said my work experience, grades, and extracurricular activities were outstanding, but COVID had reduced their capacity to have apprentices. So, I took a gap year, where I worked at McDonalds and went to therapy for my mental health, and then I scored two apprenticeships, one at BT and one at AstraZeneca.
I chose the BT one because it felt like it really embodied what an apprenticeship is all about. I got to rotate across the business and learn various roles. I got on the Chartered Management Degree Apprenticeship with BT. It was the one I wanted because it was what I applied for the first time. But looking back, I'm really glad I took a gap year.
I have a feeling that a lot of young women, particularly ethnic women or neurodiverse women, feel like in order to prove themselves they need to excel academically, go to uni, do internships, sandwich years, and be the best in their class. And that may not always align with what they really want to do, or who they really want to be.
An apprenticeship gives you so much space to explore who you are outside of a rigid academic learning environment. You’re still going to get your qualification and an apprenticeship is going to elevate you, not bring you down like some of the out-dated perspectives suggest.
My day-to-day role changes depending on the rotation I'm doing. In my first year I was a solution specialist, and I led a massive transformation programme that I built from scratch, which made BT £1mil.
So, I was immediately challenged from day one because my line manager had the discretion and the freedom from BT to challenge me in that way.
There are formal and informal avenues for support. My line manager was aware that I was fresh off a gap year, had very little office experience, and he let me navigate a lot of stuff by myself. However, he made it very clear that I could lean on him for anything (and he’s a salesman so he really sold me on the idea!). So I still felt secure despite being independent, but he also gave me a mentor and a buddy in the team.
My mentor had 30 years of industry experience. He was a great teacher and understood I would ask questions and be a bit frustrating because it took time for me to pick up on stuff. And he managed all of that really well.
From a more informal perspective, we have a BT Early Careers Community that is part of our HR team. When I joined, they hosted meet-ups in the office and encouraged us apprentices, graduates, and industrial placement students to all connect under this early careers umbrella.
At BT we work in a hybrid model, so you tend to do three days in the office and two days at home. Most colleagues have rapidly taken on the attitude that when they're in the office, it’s to socialise, which is great. So you can go in the office to see your peers, but you can also meet your wider team and meet their wider team and it's such a great opportunity to network and ask questions. If you don't know anyone in the office that day, it's quite easy to get to know someone and then sit with them and their team.
On the flipside, if you’re working from home then we have Microsoft Teams to chat and have team meetings. In my current team we have a regular, informal catch up where we joke, chat, and gossip with our cameras on. Then we've also got something called BT Workplace, which is BT's internal social network where you’re encouraged to engage with extracurricular and volunteering opportunities.
A good apprentice knows how to use their time. When you’re brand new to work it can feel really overwhelming and a good apprentice knows how to break their work down into manageable chunks.
For example, you know how to schedule your workload into people's calendars, and you know how to use the company’s tools to get the resources you need. You get to know how to do that by spending a bit of time messing around with what your employer has to offer and asking colleagues for advice. And when you first join, you go to your team for help and that's a really simple way to build relationships as well. So, I think a good apprentice is simply organised.
20% of your time is spent studying and that’s mandatory, so you get that with every apprenticeship. Every time I get a new module I will immediately block out one day of my week as out of office. You can be really flexible with that, so someone could block out half a day here and there, and do it that way. I block out the whole day because of how my training provider delivers their training.
I have a half-day workshop with the training provider, and then I spend the second half of the day writing my assignment and doing general study. I schedule at least three to five hours where I'm studying and that’s reading, essay-writing, and creating surveys for my BT colleagues to fill out so I can see how the theory from the textbook and the lesson on those days actually translates to how stuff works at BT. All those surveys set me up for success down the line because, when I'm writing my essays, I can use those as evidence.
What would you say are the main benefits and the main considerations if you’re thinking about an apprenticeship?
The main benefits of an apprenticeship to me are that if you learn best by understanding a concept and seeing it play out in front of you, that's how an apprenticeship works. So, an apprenticeship is probably the best learning style for you.
Another benefit of an apprenticeship, but it may be a consideration for some people, is that you’re always placed on edge. You're always being challenged to learn and improve, and if you're somebody who likes to use Excel, for example, you're probably going to learn Excel even better in your specific job. That pressure works really well for some people.
One consideration is you have to be so on top of your time management and your studies. It can be hard to socialise outside of work and studying if you’re somebody who really needs to connect with people. If you can't say no to seeing friends in the week when you need to, maybe an apprenticeship isn’t the right thing for you right now.
One more consideration might be you’re plunged into a machine that's been oiled and working for decades. You will probably feel a bit lost and a bit useless in the beginning because you're not on the same page as everyone else and it takes time to get there. It’s about your attitude and response to that, but also the people around you.
I recently facilitated two college students on work experience. They got to sit with me, shadow my meetings and meet people, including other apprentices, graduates, and people who have been in the business for decades. From that, they got a real feel for what a week at BT could look like as an apprentice.