High flying drop-out

Last night, straight A student Devon Sumner won the Outstanding Achievement by a First Year Apprentice category at EEF’s Future Manufacturing Awards. She looks back with relief on her decision to ditch university, and so do her parents.

Devon Sumner is flying high.

Poised and professional, she was not fazed by the attention 500 manufacturing leaders and members of the press turned on her last night as she took hold of her award for the most Outstanding Achievement by a First Year Apprentice.

But just over a year ago Devon’s recognition for her work at Airbus in Broughton would have seemed an unlikely scenario.

At the time, having achieved straight As in four ‘A’ levels, she was engrossed in a degree course at Leeds University where she had been encouraged to go by her teachers and parents. Understandably they were ambitious for her and keen that she optimise her talents.

But Devon did not respond well to the university environment and a year and a half into her course, confessed her unhappiness to her tutors and parents. She also told them she thought she had found an alternative education option: an apprenticeship.

“I always had an interest in aerospace,” she told TM at the EEF Awards ceremony in London on Thurday. “I grew up living next to an RAF base – now an international airport – and I still have an ambition to learn to fly. The idea of building aircraft was very exciting and when I met people from the Airbus training school and the apprentices I fell in love with the job and set my heart on getting a place.”

By September of the same year that she quit uni, Devon had begun her apprenticeship training – a testament in itself to the strength of her application given the intense competition for Airbus apprenticeship placements.

“It was the right decision for me – winning this award confirms that more strongly than ever,” states Devon.

Looking forward, Devon is taking things one step at a time. She says it is an exciting time to be working in aerospace and speaks of the privilege of working on the development of Airbus’s cleverly engineered A380 and A350 models.

Ever the ambitious professional, she aims to gain chartered engineer status as soon as she can and lives by the simple philosophy that “things can only get better”.

Considering her achievements so far this suggests we have not heard the last of Miss Devon Sumner.

Parental Guidance

For the proud parents of an bright child, the news that they want to drop out of university is rarely welcome. But Devon’s experience with Airbus has transformed the outlook of her parents and converted them into pro-active supporters of apprenticeships as a route to work and of the UK “fantastic” community of manufacturing employers.

Looking back over this change in perspective Mrs Wendy Sumner told TM last night, “Devon was always such a high achiever at school that we and her teachers naturally assumed she would go to university and that she would want to do so.

“In fact she was highly disappointed by the whole experience. She didn’t feel the course gave her any drive and did not challenge her.”

Naturally concerned, but sensing the seriousness of Devon’s dissatisfaction, Mrs Sumner supported her inclination to quit the course – not the reaction that every parent would take, but one which has been pivotal for both Devon and her mother – and now potentially for many other potential apprentices who may never have had the route promoted to them.

Mrs Sumner explains, “I am a PE teacher myself and head of year 11 at my school which means I have responsibility for careers advice among other things. If I am honest, before Devon’s experience with Airbus there was a stigma attached to apprenticeships for me and teachers generally. They were considered only as options for the less academically able.”

That attitude is now a thing of the past. “The way Airbus has fostered Devon’s abilities, the way she has simply flown with them has completely changed my understanding of what apprenticeships can offer and I now actively promote them, alongside other education and qualification option, to all of my students.”

Mrs Sumner says she would urge all parents to reach out more and explore all the options that their children could take to find the job that fits their abilities and enthusiasms. “Explore all horizons – for everyone. Don’t accept that university is necessarily the right or only choice for the very bright. I used to. Now I believe in finding the best fit.”

And what about manufacturing in particular as a place the parents might aspire for their children to work?

“The industry is full of bright, intelligent, driven people. Devon’s sister has now started an apprenticeship with Siemens and I just wish I had more children to put into manufacturing jobs!”

Do you employ apprentices? Could you be changing the expectations of more parents like Wendy about the career possibilities manufacturing holds? 

The Manufacturer’s event – Driving Skills Development in the Workforce will be held on February 26 at the The Waldorf Hilton, London.

The agenda includes case studies and debates on how to support apprenticeships in your business and engage effectively with schools and the local community.

If you are interested in attending this event please click here to register or call 020 7401 6033.