Award-winning female engineer urges young people to consider apprenticeships

Yesterday was one of the UK’s national obsessions, A-level results day. We spoke to award-winning trainee engineer Maria Collins, who is encouraging school-leavers to consider more vocational routes.

Maria Collins and Charles Bamford (both IMI Precision Engineering) - image courtesy of IMI Precision Engineering.
Maria Collins and Charles Bamford (both IMI Precision Engineering) – image courtesy of IMI Precision Engineering.

Around a third of all school-leavers go on to higher education at 18, and that figure rises to nearly half by the age of 30, as teachers continue to encourage students to undertake university degrees over more vocational routes.

Collins, who works at the Fradley site of Birmingham-based IMI Precision Engineering, explained her teachers were “confused” when she chose to do a three-year apprenticeship in mechanical engineering.

A bad impression

The 21-year-old trainee engineer said: “There was quite a negative impression from school, because they want to encourage you to go to university, they would do everything to discourage from the route I took, which is a shame – especially for girls. It was unheard of when I said that I wanted to go into engineering and manufacturing.”

She said that at school, the impression given of manufacturing was “a bit dirty,” and it was thought that people would only choose to do an apprenticeship because they were unable to do anything else.

Collins, who was named as the ‘Outstanding Learner of the Year’ at the In-Comm Training Awards in June, said: “I liked manufacturing, and I saw a lot of my older friends go to uni and then they couldn’t get a job afterwards, so I decided to look down a more vocational route.”

This view is reflected by EEF’s Education and Skills Policy Adviser, Bhavina Bharkhada, who commented: “With only 7% of young people going onto to do an apprenticeship after their A-levels, more needs to be done to highlight the fantastic opportunities in undertaking one.”

Bharkhada added: “Apprenticeships are a great way to earn while you learn, acquire great experience in the engineering and manufacturing industries and, at the same time, even get a degree.”

Working in industry is more than just learning the process

When school-leavers head to university this September, many of their peers will be the same age and like-minded. Collins explained working in industry allowed her to work alongside many different people she wouldn’t have had to at uni, as well as building up her career.

She said: “Whether you like people or not, you have to get along with people, you have to be professional at all times, and that is something that you don’t get at university.”

Skills Apprenticeships Apprenticeship Apprentices Workers Manufacturing Stock Image
Collin’s advice to young people who are in a similar situation to where she was, just do it.

The practical experience of doing an apprenticeship, meant that the young engineer would learn processes and then put them straight into practice, she said: “You are doing the two in parallel and that is the best way to do it.”

She added: “While you are doing your apprenticeship, people will see how hard you work, how good you are at certain things, and so they get to know you before they employ you as a professional.”

Collins explained she was studying her A-levels at school and did apply for university, with the plan originally to study physics.

Alongside her A-levels, Collins worked at a plastic factory which she explained she really enjoyed. When asked if she hadn’t worked at the factory, would the female apprentice have gone to university?

She replied: “I think so, it really helped because I knew that I loved physics, but until I went to the factory I never thought ‘oh you know’ I would actually like to manufacture.”

Her advice to young people who are in a similar situation to where she was, is just do it. “Apprenticeships are fantastic for vocational learning” she said. “If you are unsure, just go for it because it is the best decision I made and I don’t regret it for a second. You get the best of both worlds.”

Looking toward the future, Maria said she wanted to continue to work in engineering, with the ultimate goal to become a chartered engineer.

Collins has been shortlisted for Young Manufacturer of the Year as part of this year’s The Manufacturer MX Awards – the largest annual celebration of UK manufacturing:


How is UK manufacturing helping to drive apprenticeships forward?