Women in Stem: interview with an apprentice engineer

apprentice engineers being shown how equipment works

Zoe was headed to college and A-levels until the opportunity of an engineering apprenticehip changed her course...

Choosing an engineering apprenticeship over A-levels was a big decision for Zoe, but one that she now describes as the best decision she ever made.

The Student Room spoke to her during the final year of her apprenticeship to find out more about her experience.

In this article, Zoe explains why she decided to ditch the traditional A-levels route and go for an apprenticeship, as well as what it’s like to be a woman working in a largely male-dominated industry and where she hopes her apprenticeship will take her.

What first led you towards becoming an apprentice engineer?

I always wanted to do something Stem-related but up until year 9, I wasn’t sure what that would be. Dermatologist and physicist were high on my list.

During Year 9, I went on a taster day at a large engineering company (that I now work for) and I met one of the engineers there. He showed me the work he was doing, and took me on a tour of the production areas. That was it – I was hooked!

I was very fortunate that the engineer I met that day took me under his wing and encouraged me to continue asking questions. It was this encounter that brought engineering into my mind and really made me consider it as a career.

engineering apprentices being shown equipment

Did you get any advice or support when it came to starting your apprenticeship?

In Year 11, I applied to a college and a sixth form to do A-levels. Even though I was considering engineering, my plan had been to continue with further education. I was going to do maths, further maths, chemistry, physics and geology.

I’ve always been an advocate of keeping doors open, so I decided to apply for an apprenticeship as well. If nothing else, I was going to get experience of an interview, as I’d never had one.

Following the interview, I had an offer on the table – and a difficult (and unexpected!) decision to make. I didn’t rule out anything straight away.

I spotted an application for work experience at the company I’d got an offer from, and I decided to apply. I was successful and attended a week’s work experience where I got to work alongside skilled operators and try my hand at different engineering skills on the real product.

Riveting, bonding, testing – you name it, I got to try it. This made my decision for me – I wanted to be involved in this. I liked the environment, the people, and the work I’d done that week. Personally, not once did a gender imbalance cross my mind.

Needless to say, I accepted the apprenticeship on GCSE results day, much to the surprise of a few of my teachers!  I’ll admit that when I first started the apprenticeship, I did wonder if I’d made the right choice and the ‘what ifs’ did occur in my mind, but now that I’m three years in, it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

engineering apprentices being shown equipment

What does an average day at work look like for you?

As an apprentice, I’ve moved around a number of departments before this one, so my days have been very varied. One day I could be testing material properties, another day I could be supporting electrical production environments.

At the moment I work with the certification team to ensure the product we send out to the customer is safe and its limits are understood.

What has been the most challenging part of your job?

Taking in all the information that is thrown at you. I’ve moved around lots of departments and the fast pace at which environments change can be challenging to adapt to. But I love a challenge and that’s what has made my apprenticeship so exciting!

What has been the best part of your job?

The ability to get involved from day one. And when I say involved, I mean involved in the real thing, not just practice tasks or admin jobs.

Yes, there are bits that are less exciting, but everyone has to do those, and the best parts definitely outweigh those. I’ve been able to work in live environments on projects that have made a real contribution to the company.

Another big part I’ve enjoyed is the opportunity to get involved in more than just my day job. As part of my apprenticeship, I’ve become a Stem ambassador and supported events all over the country – and abroad too!

They’ve given me lots of experiences that I don’t think I would have had if I’d continued solely with further education, and I’m really grateful for that.

engineering apprentice being shown equipment

What’s it like to be a woman in engineering?

I’ve not experienced any barriers during my engineering career to date. Yes, women are not represented in the same numbers as men, but that shouldn’t put anyone off.

You can learn a lot from a group of engineers, regardless of gender or any other way you want to categorise them. In my experience, as long as I’ve shown willingness to learn there’s always been someone there to nurture that.

I think diverse teams, on any level, offer a different way of thinking and can come up with some pretty cool ideas as well.

What’s the gender balance in your department?

In my department there’s only one other female engineer. However, I honestly never noticed until someone mentioned it in passing.

I’m fortunate that everyone in the department is great and willing to share their knowledge, and that’s the most important thing for me: something to learn and someone to learn from.

What advice do you have for women interested in engineering?

If you’re interested in the industry, delve deeper. Don’t be put off if you see a room full of men, and don’t feel that you must wait for a female role model to ‘justify’ you pursuing your interest. If you want to do it, and you can find a way to do it, then go for it.

I’d say the top skills you need to have are a willingness to listen and learn, a curious mind to question things, and a passion for whatever you’re pursuing . A good sense of humour can go a long way too!

engineering apprentice working

Where do you see this apprenticeship taking you?

I’m due to complete [my apprenticeship] very soon and I’ll be staying with the company. I’d like to gain more experience in my area and delve into more of the detail, considering I’ve only undertaken short stints in all of my apprentice roles.

Do you feel like being a woman has caused any barriers to your career?

I don’t feel as though there are any barriers for my career. If I come across something that may be considered a barrier, I’d like to think my ‘inner-engineer’ would come up with a solution to the problem and do it in such a way that it keeps doors open, or opens new ones.

I’m aware that, despite the initiatives, not every company gives women the equal opportunities that they deserve. But I’d challenge those women to see these instances as an opportunity in their own right – an opportunity to prove people wrong and to drive the change that they want to see.

I can’t be the only one who, if someone says ‘you can’t do that’, does everything in my power to prove them wrong. This is no different.

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