We’ve been getting in touch with apprentices within the STEM world to learn more about their experiences and recently we had a chat with Ismaeel Patel, an Electrical Engineer. Previously an apprentice, Ismaeel now has a full-time role at National Nuclear Laboratory (where he completed the apprenticeship). Not only does Ismaeel talk to us about his interesting career so far, but he also speaks of the battle many of us find ourselves in: should I go to university or straight into the world of work?
Hey Ismaeel. Thanks for taking the time to chat to me!
No problem. Thank you for inviting me to take part.
Before we delve into the more nitty-gritty details of your apprenticeship, when and why did you first apply to NNL?
I joined NNL in 2014, so at that time I’d just finished college and was torn between choosing an apprenticeship or going to university. At that time I applied for five different universities and successfully secured places at a number of them. However, I wasn’t sure if that was the right opportunity for me.
Mainly because I’ve got friends that have finished university and have got a really good degree but they’re in thousands of pounds worth of debt and have no industry experience. Whereas, I have friends who have done apprenticeships and gained loads of experience, with no debt. After a lot of thought, I decided to go down the apprenticeship route and applied for a number of apprenticeships too. NNL were one of the organisations that got back to me.
What was the application process like?
I applied to a training provider in Blackburn. I went for an interview there and following that they passed my details onto companies including NNL. The Head of Engineering at NNL came back to me and talked through the application process and tests. From there, a couple of weeks later, they invited me for an interview in Warrington. I went and there were another six candidates and we did a number of different tests, face-to-face interviews and a presentation of why we think we’d be a good engineer. A few weeks after that I heard back and was delighted to hear that I had been accepted onto the scheme as an Electrical/Electronic Engineering Design Apprentice.
So what qualifications did you have before applying for the apprenticeship? A-Levels?
At college I did an ONC BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Electrical Engineering.
Was this something you always wanted to get into from a young age?
Yeah, from a young age I’ve always been interested in engineering of some sort – interested in technology, the way that stuff works, cars. But I think it’s also come from a lot of my friends being engineers. A lot of my friends are older than me and they were doing well in the industry and making good money so I think this rubbed off on me.
So, the apprenticeship was in Electrical Engineering?
Yes, it was a three and half year apprenticeship in Electrical and Electronic engineering.
When you were doing your apprenticeship, what was your standard working day like? Did it vary a lot, or was it quite structured?
One of the good things about NNL was – although it sounds cliché – no two days were ever the same. The first year of my apprenticeship was getting basic engineering experience, doing engineering hands-on skills – basically getting a generic overview of engineering.
I was then offered the opportunity to go to NNL’s Preston workshop facilities to work with the engineers there. Initially I was really nervous about that as it was a complete new environment, but looking back at it now it was probably one of the best experiences I had at NNL.
As a Design Engineer, you’re obviously going to see the designs, the drawings and the project side of engineering. But to be involved in the hands-on side and understand what happens to your drawings and designs was a fantastic experience.
What did you find most hard about the apprenticeship? What were your main challenges?
I think it was probably the move to a different environment such as Preston. The atmosphere is completely different there. So to move from a professional office environment to go to a workshop environment was a challenge – but something that I also really enjoyed. Sometimes you just have to put yourself out there and stick at it.
What have you enjoyed most during your time at NNL so far?
I’ve really enjoyed promoting STEM to students starting out in their careers, going to different schools and working on student engineering projects. We have a scheme at NNL where we are trying to inspire the next generation of engineers. I spent a few months alongside my colleagues working with a school to create a modified sustainable sports facility. I assisted in the project management and motivating them. Obviously it’s quite difficult to juggle work alongside the 11 week programme, but seeing the students improve their presentation skills was worth it. Also, the team won the GO4SET Innovation Award and a Silver Crest award.
NNL are really keen to get employees involved in the community, being both an ambassador for NNL and for STEM. So I’m going to various training providers, schools and colleges – I think it’s important as a young engineer to try and inspire young people who are unsure of their next step so that they can get a first-hand account of someone who has been through the process.
In terms of other projects I work on at NNL; I’ve had the opportunity to work at a 3D design package to model one of the buildings that we have, looking at ways to make the building more secure. Another really interesting project I’m currently assisting on is trying to implement virtual reality at NNL.
As an electrical engineer at NNL, you don’t just have to fulfil your job description, but you can also work on other projects that interest you and, for me, that’s really important.
You mentioned at the beginning that you were toying between a degree or apprenticeship. Are you glad that you went with an apprenticeship?
100%. One of the best things about the apprenticeship was that I was given the opportunity to gain experience. I prefer learning through experience rather than just the theory through a lecture. NNL have not only offered me employment and paid me, but they’ve also offered to fund my higher education. So I came in after my ONC and they funded me for my HNC/D and they’re currently sponsoring me for my degree which I’m doing through UCLAN. It’s in Electrical/Electronic Engineering and I’ve just finished my first of two years top up.
Do you do that alongside work then?
Yes. So I do that one day a week at college and then four days of the week I work. It’s something that the company has really supported – they’re willing to pay for that. It’s kind of a win-win; you’re getting paid and they are paying for your education so you’re not getting in any debt. I know apprenticeships aren’t for everybody, and neither are degrees, but the opportunity to learn whilst you earn is one of the best things about apprenticeships.
Ismaeel’s advice & future
What would you recommend to students thinking about going into the STEM industry and what decisions to make?
It’s not a generic thing where you could say “definitely do a degree” or “definitely do an apprenticeship.” At the end of the day, it depends on where you want to go. One thing I would say is to encourage students to keep researching and keep asking questions.
So you’re currently going into the final year of your degree. Do you have an idea of where you want to go going forward?
I want to continue studying, trying to get the best result I can. From there, pursuing Chartership in my field. I had a meeting recently with my line manager and they want me to get involved more in the control side of engineering, just to get me a bit more exposure into what that is. From there, I can decide if that’s something that I want to go into.
I think that’s one of the great things about NNL – they give you opportunities to work in different areas if you want to; you’re not tied down to one thing for your career.
That’s very exciting – and it sounds like you’re very busy! What do you do outside of work to wind down?
Of course getting the balance is really important. So either at lunchtime or straight after work I like going to the gym. It’s just opposite to where I work so it’s really convenient for me as well. Also, I usually unwind by watching an episode (or three) of a TV series. I’m currently catching up on Game of Thrones!
Thanks for the chat Ismaeel – we wish you the best of luck for the future.