Uzma Chaudhry, O2 apprentice

by Uzma Chaudhry, O2 apprentice

 

Apprenticeships have had a bad rap. For years, they have carried with them negative connotations associated with low pay and were pigeon holed as the natural path for less academic students – and they were almost unheard of for girls.

But for anyone living in the UK these last few years, it’s clear that apprenticeships have had a radical – and long overdue – makeover. After spending so long in the proverbial shadow of university degrees and grad schemes, apprenticeships are finally getting the attention they deserve.

In the run-up to the General Election, it was fantastic to see all of the parties giving apprenticeships such a prominent showing in their campaigns. David Cameron pledged three million new apprenticeships, Labour promised an apprenticeship to every student who gets the grades, and the Lib Dems looked to double the number of businesses offering apprenticeships. I for one look forward to seeing the new government implement all that they have promised.

My own apprenticeship journey started in September 2013, following my A-levels when I was thinking about my next step. Almost everyone I knew was pushing me to go to university – my friends, my teachers, my parents – but something was holding me back. Whilst my parents were nervous about me choosing the path less trodden, I found the prospect of spending three years and thousands of pounds to study something that potentially wouldn’t benefit my career  a much scarier one. I decided to take a year out and give some real thought to what I wanted to do.

During that year, I took part in a leadership programme with vInspired, called Teamv, which focuses on empowering young people to run social-action campaigns and raise awareness of key local issues. We were trained in various aspects of business management – finance, marketing, PR, social media and networking – all of which made me hungry to kick-start my career. After such exposure to campaigning, business and leadership, I felt that it just wasn’t the right time to go to university.

That’s when I first heard about O2’s CSR programme ‘Think Big’, and started working on one of O2’s Digital Hubs in Lancaster, a programme I designed to teach digital skills to young people in the community. I really enjoyed the fast-paced tech-driven environment, and promptly decided to apply for their apprenticeship scheme.

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Apprenticeships offer the kind of life preparation, training and exposure that you simply can’t get elsewhere. While I would never deny the value of university, since joining O2 as an apprentice in September I have had access to opportunities that are practically unheard of for someone my age.

For example, earlier this year I was selected to attend Telefónica’s Pangea conference in Madrid, a global conference dedicated to encouraging and displaying young talent, which draws high profile speakers such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson. As the only UK apprentice at the conference, not only did I feel a huge sense of pride (and responsibility!) about representing O2, it was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to come face-to-face with inspirational individuals from all around the globe.

More recently, during this year’s National Apprenticeship Week, I spent the day shadowing O2’s Marketing and Consumer Director Nina Bibby, as part of an O2 initiative to give apprentices an insight to life on the board. Marketing is an area I’m particularly interested in, so the chance to spend one-to-one time with a major corporate Marketing Director was fantastic – and something plenty of marketing students don’t get the opportunity to do.

But it’s not just these one-off perks that make apprenticeships worthwhile. Apprentices hit the ground running from day one. At O2 we’re encouraged to take initiative and shape our apprenticeship based on what interests us the most, trying out different roles and putting our ideas forward to be heard. I’ve benefited from continuous exposure to digital and business experts at the top of their game, all whilst studying for an NVQ in Business Sales.

It’s true, apprenticeships aren’t for the faint of heart. By choosing to do an apprenticeship, you can kiss goodbye to rolling out of bed for a 1pm lecture (and then crawling back in). You will also sacrifice other university staples like Freshers’ Week, leavers’ balls and living in a halls of residence with thousands of people your age.

Instead, I wake up at 6am every day and, due to a long commute, often don’t get home until 7pm, and I face just as much accountability as the rest of my team. Apprenticeships are hard work, and deciding to go against the grain and give up three comparatively care-free years is a brave choice – but it’s still the best one I’ve ever made.

As a bonafide apprenticeship advocate, it’s been great to see the tide turning around attitudes towards apprenticeships. But the reality is there’s still a way to go before they’re on a genuinely even footing with university degrees, and widely accepted as a legitimate alternative. It’s the responsibility of everyone to make this happen.

The government needs to commit to helping young people into apprenticeship schemes, businesses need to invest in quality programmes, and, crucially, teachers and careers counsellors need to change the dialogue in schools, to make sure that students aren’t put off a path that might well be perfect for them.

 

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