Did you know This week is National Apprenticeship Week?

This really got me thinking about where I started my career and how things have moved forward since then. Hopefully, this blog post will help a young person make a step towards learning a trade or a business owner to decide to take on an apprentice.

If I have learnt one thing in my career, it is that you are only as good as the people who teach you your trade.

How it all started
I started my career in 1986 when I entered an engineering apprenticeship at a company called Ian Fellows Limited in Frome that made industrial weighing Systems.

Although I started on a 2-year YTS course, this turned into a Time Served Apprenticeship, looking back on those days makes me feel really nostalgic about my humble beginnings. The engineering shop I learned to be a toolmaker in was filled with ancient machines all over 50 years old. Many of the machines were so old that electric motors had been retrofitted to them.

We had very little in the way of equipment, but I had a manager that would never turn down a job because we didn’t have the correct equipment to make something. I learnt that you could most likely solve every problem you come across if you think outside the box no matter what you have to hand.

In fact, last year, Ian Fellows invited me out for a meal. It was very humbling to be talking to the man who first put his trust in me. But most importantly, it gave me a chance to thank him. Had Ian not taken a risk on an argumentative, opinionated teenager in the mid-1980s, my career path may have been very different.

What I enjoyed about being an apprentice.
I really enjoyed learning new skills, and then putting them into practice making products I knew would be in-service days or weeks later. There was a massive amount of pride involved in making parts correctly. I didn’t get it right every time though, and on some occasions, I really did make some stupid mistakes, but I only made them once. I learnt a valuable lesson, its ok to make mistakes, as long as I learn from them.
I learnt a lot during my apprenticeship
The most important thing my apprenticeship gave me was a firm grounding in engineering and manufacturing principles. I also learnt how to make an awesome cup of tea and sweep the workshop without getting in the way of the skilled engineers, But that was all part of the journey.

I also learnt how to take a joke gracefully, how to look busy when the boss walked past, and how important it was to build relationships and even friendships with my colleagues so I knew I could trust and rely on should the smelly stuff hit the fan.

Another thing I learnt was a very important life lesson and that was that “it is nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice”.

More training
I started to learn my design skills at another company in Frome called Micro Precision Instruments Limited (MPI). The owners, Ray and Mary Wadey, gave me a job when I needed it the most. I had moved jobs, the company I moved to shut down after 3 months and Ray Wadey offered to employ me. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Ray invested hours of his time and a lot of money training me to be a better, more confident engineer. He then helped me to become the design engineer I am today, Ray was a fantastic engineer, but more importantly, he was a really nice person. He took the time not only to teach but also to listen. You can see his influence in a lot of things I design and a lot of his wisdom still guides me today. This was really like a second apprenticeship for me. I was moving from manufacturing into the design office, and I liked it.

I worked for MPI for around 20 years, and I have to say it was, without doubt, the best job I have ever had. 

Life-Long Learning

When I left MPI I worked for one of the largest independently owned orthopaedic companies in the UK. Finsbury Orthopaedics in Leatherhead. It is here I worked Mike Tuke and Andy Taylor who, years down the line gave me the encouragement to open White Horse CAD.

I was employed as a senior design engineer, but I never stopped learning. There was always a training course or a book or something that I could do to learn something else. I learnt about project management, cleanroom practices, materials. Every day is really is a school day.

My top six tips for apprentices
  1. Never be afraid to ask a question. It really is true the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.
  2. Always listen to the skilled workers, they really do know best. You are welcome to disagree with them, but they will most likely prove you wrong.
  3. Learn to make a good cup of tea. Your colleagues will be thankful you remembered they like 3 sugars in the blue cup, and not too much milk.
  4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. There will be times when you do something silly or get caught out in a prank. Don’t worry about it; it happens to us all. Even me, I was caught out more than once. Learn to laugh it off. You will enjoy your apprenticeship much more.
  5. Be passionate about your chosen trade. Even if it’s just a little bit passionate, you will have a burning desire to learn, and you will soak up more knowledge than you think is possible.
  6. Enjoy your apprenticeship. You will look back on it in years to come and realise just how important a time it was in your life and your career, it really does help to shape your future.

One more thing. To quote Ray Wadey,  “be careful who you step over on the way up, you may need their help should you ever fall down”.

My advice for becoming a mechanical design engineer

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