Tom Ashworth is an apprentice supervisor at Tony Gee, a civil engineering consultancy company that design structures for all environments, from large bridges to the lifting rig for the London Eye, and the largest land-based crane in the world.

We spoke to Tom about what an apprenticeship is really like and how you’re supported through it.

An apprenticeship is a really attractive way to get into engineering

An apprenticeship is a way of getting into an industry without going down the university route. It's a way people can earn money without getting into student debt. We often find we’ve got graduates with master’s degrees and apprentices who are several years younger but are already earning more money because they went down the apprenticeship route.

Our apprentices typically do four days in the office. When they’re in the office, they learn to draw and model engineering designs. They learn what's called ‘BIM software’ on the computer, how to do 3D modelling and make drawings we send to clients.

They also take on some engineering tasks as they advance in their experience and study. Also, they do one day a week at a local college studying.

You’re mentored from day one

My role as a supervisor is to help our apprentices settle into the company. Some of the apprentices we hire are around 16, maybe straight from GCSEs or A levels with little experience of working full-time. So, it’s settling them in and checking they are progressing well with their studying and what they’re doing in the office.

Then at the end of the first two years of the apprenticeship they do their EngTech qualification with a professional institution, so it's reviewing their application, giving them mock reviews and supporting them through that. I also help with their decision-making for the future, so what they want to do after the apprenticeship.

The apprentices we have taken on at a very young age have limited experience; there is so much progression to see with them. They develop very quickly from initially coming into the company with zero experience and ability. Even within a few months, they can take a valuable part in a team and contribute to the designs we put forward. Within a year or so, they can be the main BIM support on a project. That is really rewarding to see as a mentor.

Someone who can give us clear planning skills will stand out

When we recruit apprentices, we want to see someone good at thinking through and planning tasks. We ask candidates to give us an example of a time when they have planned and organised a task themselves. We also ask if they have been part of a team and how they have broken down a task and planned it. So, someone who can give a clear example will stand out to us.

We always like to see people with practical experience in building things. Maybe someone who has made a computer, or they have done a project with their dad building a shed, or at school they have built a chair as part of a project.

Appreciating how things fit together and the problems with doing a design and then struggling to construct it matter. We look for people who can communicate those problems and show they have learned and thought about them.

Apprenticeships would also suit someone at the midpoint of their life, who has commitments and dependents and wants to study and learn at the same time. You can get straight into the industry without the four-year wait that you would have if you went down the university route.

It can take a little while to settle in

Some apprentices have struggled to adjust to a typical ‘9-5’ job. Some struggle to fit in their college assignments and study over evenings and weekends because they work during the day. So that is a big commitment to get used to. Then at the end of term, they have exams which can be tricky to balance, but we support that with some time off to study.

Most of the apprentices we’ve recruited have been 16 to 21 when they've joined us. Some have decided midway through A levels they’re not sure about the academic route or have even started uni and then decided the practical route is better for them.

After the apprenticeship, our apprentices have the skills to be permanent employees

Our apprentices start at Level 3. For the first two years, they study for a BTEC and NVQ. They then do the EngTech qualification straight after. After that, they can start a Level 6 apprenticeship if they want to, which is a degree apprenticeship that can take them to become fully qualified engineers. Or they can do an HNC/HND if they’d prefer. 

Some apprentices decide they’re happy as they are, and they don’t want to do any further education which is fine too. After the apprenticeship, all our apprentices have learned enough skills to have a place in our company

My advice? Just go for it

I personally think it's a really good role. Going down the degree route is a big commitment with the costs as well as potentially having to relocate. I think apprenticeships solve a lot of that, making it a much more accessible route with lower barriers coming into the industry.

At the moment we really need more apprentices; we're not personally seeing enough recruits coming forward. We need more people at Tony Gee and in the whole construction and engineering industry in general. There's so much being built like high-speed rail lines, Hinkley Point C and various rail upgrades.

There are so many opportunities for you as an apprentice

At Tony Gee, we are consulting civil, structural, and geotechnical engineers. We've got about 450 people working for us across the UK, and we design roads, bridges, railways, power and energy projects for contractors and clients.

Recently I’ve been working on Hinkley Point C (the first nuclear power station in the UK this century) where we designed the reinforced concrete foundation for the largest land-based crane in the world. Plus, there are lots of rail projects that we're working on like the Transpennine route upgrade that our apprentices are currently involved with.