Could an apprenticeship really be the gateway to a successful career?

By Richard Hines, principal specialist inspector at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)


A demanding job in a high-pressure environment, dealing with matters of life and death daily, you might think that I’m the product of a Russell Group university education with a list of Bachelors and Masters degrees to my name. But you’d be wrong.

Like most young people at 16, I finished school and was faced with the massive choice between staying on in education and going to university, entering the world of full-time work, or bridging the gap between the two by undertaking an apprenticeship.

I weighed up my options, mindful that whatever decision I took would determine my future career. I looked at university pamphlets and attended open days but the courses just didn’t appeal to me. I knew I wanted to get into electrical engineering as soon as possible, and get real life hands-on experience, when it hit me; I should do an apprenticeship. Twenty years later, I haven’t looked back since.


Why do an apprenticeship?

Speaking as someone who chose the specialist route, the experience gained and things I was exposed to on my four-year apprenticeship were invaluable. The training provided is relevant to the job in hand, is delivered by industry professionals who are experts in the field, and you develop skills directly useful in your day-to-day role.

There’s also so much choice now when it comes to apprenticeships; whether you’re interested in science and technology, business, sport or communications, there really is a programme for everyone who enjoys vocational learning.

One of the main advantages of apprenticeships is the opportunity to develop transferrable skills. Using myself as just one example; I started out my career on a four-year electrical apprenticeship in British Sugar and worked my way up the ranks before joining the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as a specialist inspector.

The skills I gained as an apprentice, and the advantage of starting out my career four or five years before my peers, is what I believe has driven me forward professionally. And, in the engineering industry especially, starting out as an apprentice and working your way up is something that is really respected and bolsters your credibility in the profession.

My previous experience as an electrical apprentice helps me every day in my current role as a principal specialist inspector. Managing a team of five specialist electrical inspectors (three of which are also former apprentices), we visit workplaces across Britain to ensure they’re fit for purpose and aren’t environments which damage or kill those who work there.

My background has also been a huge help to me when working on major incidents. My team and I worked on the investigation into the July 2015 Smiler rollercoaster crash at Alton Towers which left several members of the public seriously-injured. It was our role to try to determine what exactly had gone wrong and we played our part in that prosecution.


How can we encourage more young people into apprenticeships?

As we head into exam season, and with the Prime Minister launching a review in an effort to rebalance post-secondary education away from universities towards vocational study, there is no better time than the present to do what we can to encourage more young people to consider an apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships should be promoted on a parity of esteem with university degrees – they are just as valuable and can lead to successful careers for those with the drive and determination.

We must continue to move away from the mentality that apprenticeships are a ‘last resort’ for those who fail to get a place at university and instead see them on their own merit – mixing learning with hands-on experience.

Giving a platform to apprenticeship employers is an effective way of promoting them to young people. While universities host their open days on campus, employers could be invited to schools and colleges to discuss the apprenticeship training their organisation offers so that young people are properly introduced and aware of both options.

Thanks to my apprenticeship, I am now in an intense but fascinating role where I feel like my work really matters and has an impact. One day I could be onsite inspecting a company’s premises to ensure they aren’t using practices that can kill or maim their workers, the next I could be dealing with a multiple fatality incident in the glare of the world’s media.

As clichéd as it sounds, no two days are the same. I don’t believe I would have gotten here without having taken the apprenticeship route.

If information on careers at HSE:, for information on HSE apprenticeships: or follow @H_S_E on Twitter


This article was originally published on FE News