Career goals: Mechanical design engineer

Design engineer Adam chose to take an apprenticeship over university. Here he explains his role, how he juggled work with studying and why he's glad he took the apprenticeship path.

Meet Adam

Advanced apprenticeship in: design and draughting at Sellafield 
A-levels studied: maths, physics, chemistry and biology


What's an average day in the life of a mechanical design engineer?

Basically, I design mechanical engineering things. Not only do I create my own designs, but I'm usually working on an existing design and modifying it in some way too.

A typical day could see me sketching up ideas on paper or Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, transferring them to engineer drawings, completing stress analysis calculations, writing user instructions or conducting a risk assessment on the design – essentially, anything that goes into the design of that machine.

Tell us how you started out in your apprenticeship.

My apprenticeship was with Sellafield Limited, a company responsible for decommissioning, reprocessing and nuclear waste management activities, and lasted four years.

It wasn't an easy start. I had to move over 150 miles from near Doncaster to Cumbria for it, which meant moving away from home, family and friends at 18 and living on my own. I spent my first year at Gen2 training where I learned handy skills such as bench-fitting, machining and machine maintenance before I moved into the design offices at Sellafield.

Since then, I've obtained a Level 3 diploma in engineering design and draughting, a foundation degree in plant engineering and an advanced apprenticeship in design and draughting.

Do you work as part of a team? 

Yes. My team has always helped me when I've asked and given me the support I've needed to grow – the more I learn, the more useful I become to them.

When working on live projects, where time and money are concerned, you need to show that you want to work, learn and be part of that team.

How do you handle challenges that come up?

Ask for help! It's not rocket science. You can sit there and be stressed, but you have to let people know, otherwise you'll just drive yourself into the ground. If something is wrong, you have no idea what to do, or you're feeling pressured, just say!  

Your employer will understand and would rather you tell them so they can support you.

What skills are highly valued in a role like yours? Especially as an apprentice?

Being able to learn from experience. People respect that you've come in from the bottom and learned from the people around you. [As an apprentice], you have an understanding of work in real terms, rather than just the theory of how things should be done.

You gain a practical understanding of how to apply the knowledge you've learned, rather than just using it to answer an exam paper.

Why did you choose the apprenticeship route over university?

I had no idea what I was going to do when I left school. I liked science and engineering, and studied them at sixth form. I realised halfway through that I was sick of studying in a classroom. I wanted to learn, but I also wanted to get out there and work too. I also knew I didn't want to go to university as I didn't want the debt and lots of exams.

When I heard about apprenticeships, it sounded like the perfect option. Learning, getting experience and earning money just seemed like a no-brainer to me!

Was it difficult being 'The Apprentice' at work?

It's important to maintain a professional attitude. If you have a genuine point or a valid argument then people will listen. They may not always agree, but they will certainly take your opinion into account. You shouldn't be dismissed just because 'you're the apprentice'.

What was the best part of your apprenticeship?

Gaining experience and a wage, but no student debt. There are so many qualified people out there with degrees, but it's the work experience which sets people apart. 

I suppose getting paid to learn isn’t a bad perk either! The wage allows you to live, go out and have a life during your apprenticeship.

Plus, you have a very good chance of getting a job at the end. It's never guaranteed; but as long as you work hard, do what is asked of you and prove yourself, then that company – who've invested a lot of money in you at this point – are very likely to take you on.

Balancing work and study must have been difficult. Any tips for future apprentices?

Just get stuck in. I'm not going to lie, it's hard work and you have to study in your own time. You may come home from work and feel like lying on the sofa or going down the pub with your mates, but guess what – you have work to do!

It's not like that all the time though, mainly around exam time and assignment due dates.

Do you still find yourself learning new things?

I can't think of a day when I haven't learned something new. You can learn all sorts, from using new software for mathematical formulae to how to communicate with people.

But the key is to learn where best to apply what you have learned. For example, when should I be using this form of stress calculation? Or when during the design phase should I organise a team meeting? I think that's a key skill that most people overlook.

What's been the hardest part of your apprenticeship?

Overcoming the stereotypical view that seems to come with it. When I was at college, people seemed to think it was a lesser route to university.

However, in the space of four-and-a-half years I've left home, studied for my foundation degree, gained valuable workplace experience, completed my apprenticeship, competed in numerous national challenges, brought home a good wage and gained full-time employment. I've just bought my first home with my partner, who is also an ex-apprentice!

You're still involved in apprenticeships, right?

Recently, I've found myself doing a lot of work around promoting apprenticeships, which I really enjoy.

Also, I'm part of a kids engineering club at Workington Academy which I go to every Thursday night. It's great to give something back and inspire the next generation. Plus, it's loads of fun! The other week we were making mini wind-powered carts – I'm sure I was the biggest kid in the room!

Looking back over the last four years, what are you most proud of?

I've achieved more than I could have ever dreamed of, including sailing a tall ship across the Irish Sea as part of the Apprentice Ship Cup. 

In the office, my re-design of a radiation shielding plate saved my project an estimated 1,000 hours and £100,000, which felt like a real accomplishment!

But I think my proudest moment to date was bringing my dad to the National Apprenticeship Service Awards in London last year, when I won the Advanced Apprentice of the Year. He's invested so much in me so it was great for him to see that I had worked hard and made the most of the opportunity.

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