1. Please give an overview of your role and what this involves on a day-to-day basis:
I work as a laboratory analyst. Despite being an apprentice I was given exactly the same training and responsibilities as the full time analysts - although I did take a bit longer with some of the training. I complete a range of tasks from daily pipette and balance calibration checks, preparing and acidifying samples, making solutions and analysing samples by ICP-MS, ICP-OES and radioactive planchette. I work within a team of ~14 and although I am responsible for my own instrument we work together to spread the preparation and solution workload if necessary. We work within a laboratory of ~110 staff and we meet quarterly to discuss health and safety. Additional responsibilities I have picked up are procurement for the team, maintaining the calibration tracker and being our health and safety rep, whilst also updating and maintaining our risk assessment and COSHH and skin surveillance. I have worked on a few projects such as the yearlong validation of our new ICP-MS in my 3rd to 4th year which involved developing new methods for this instrument incorporating new technology and novel sample preparation techniques. I have also given a talk at the RSC about apprenticeships and membership of the RSC.
2. Have you learnt any new skills or developed existing skills?
I have obtained qualifications in IOSH as well as completing external training in presentation, team working, personal impact, ICP-MS analysis, ICP-OES analysis, and radioactivity planchette analysis, my RSciTech and RSci, Gas Safe handling of gas cylinders and cryogenic gasses and use of EVAC chairs. Internally I have completed, Customer, Health and safety, Customer, regulation, basic laboratory skills, procurement, AQC chart management and MS scan interpretation. Aside from all this training I have also most importantly learnt the interpersonal skills to work within a team which has seen the biggest improvement in my work since I began. I have also developed a broad spread of laboratory skills preparing me for work in numerous labs and the ability to look to take the next step up in my career.
3. To what extent do you enjoy your programme?
Thames Water have treated me the same as any other member of staff from day one. The work has been varied and interesting as I have moved across multiple different roles within the department to develop a broad range of understanding and to have the opportunity to work with different members of the team. Although we do not have regular team meets outside of work we have a few each year which have all been fun and everyone's been involved. I've also made friends and gotten into new sports as a result of the people I work with. My team leaders and manager have been very supportive and encouraged me to take on extra training to continue improving myself and to develop a wider skill set to express and utilise myself better. I've also been given extra time and help when my university work load has been at its highest or most challenging.
4. How valued do you feel by Thames Water?
My manager always tells me when I've done a good job. He also asks me how I am doing on a work and personal level every other day when I deliver results to his desk. I've received employee of the month and been nominated on other times. My manager has also encouraged me to complete training to improve myself rather than just remaining stationary in my role. I've been given the opportunity to lead on projects, such as the yearlong validation of a new instrument and to develop the new methodologies incorporation new technologies and techniques. I've been asked to talk about my experience by the RSC as well. So I feel highly valued. They have also taken on board my feedback of the training provider and liaised or acted accordingly.
5. How well organised/structured is your programme?
Thames Water have given me every opportunity to do well, I've been given half days a week to study and then when this was not enough an additional hour each day. They've also directed me towards any training opportunities or experiences that they fell may be relevant to helping me succeed in my course. I've also had regular formal and informal check-ins with my manager and team leader. Manchester Metropolitan University have provided and inconsistent learning experience. In the initial three years there was more structure to the work and it was a bespoke course. However when I did have any questions or queries I had real issues getting in contact and had to resort to having other students contact MMU or in some cases my manager as I could not elicit a response over several weeks. In light of this however they have been flexible with deadlines as they do appreciate that we work too. In years 4 and 5 we were shoehorned into the full time program and the consistency fell away. Some lecturers were engaged with us and provided all of their materials readily, others did not know we existed and did not even offer us material, let alone support. In some cases we were working with illegible hand written notes or just PowerPoints without the lecture audio or even notes, which were not always usable. We also suffered from long delays in marking and feedback. At the beginning of year 5 there was an improvement and they stated to take a bit more control centrally and the course staff engaged with the various lectures centrally for us, however this fell away after Christmas and we were left to fend for ourselves again.
6a. How much support do you receive from your training provider?
The course was very inconsistent. In the first three years the course was bespoke to distance learning and incorporated aspects of our job into training. The workload was inconsistent but it was manageable. However any issues I had real problems getting in contact with staff and on several occasions had to ask other students to make contact or to ask my manager to intervene as I was being ignored. Examples include work with four week deadlines that I had an initial problem with and not receiving a response on how to proceed for over three weeks. In the annual course review we gave feedback and were largely told that any problems were just the way they are and there did not seem any desire to address them. When moving to years 4 and 5 the course had not been designed with this progression in mind. We were shoehorned into the full time program but had not completed any intermediate work. i.e. we completed year 1 of university lectures across years 1 - 3 but then jumped straight to year 3 lectures for years 4 and 5. This left a knowledge gap that was never addressed. - However the year 2 lectures are now included in the course. There were also real support issues, some lecturers had videos or slideshows that translated into distance learning well. Other lecturers had only physical materials or lectures where the content was oral. In these instances we received hand annotated slide packs or just hand written lecture notes which is not really acceptable or a fair and constructive way to learn. Some lecturers were really engaging and happy to support us and others refused to interact with us. Any issues raised with the program team were initially addressed but this deteriorated into leaving us to try and co-ordinate this ourselves as time went on with no responses or telling us to contact the lecturers individually. There were also organisational issues such as giving two weeks notice or less that we needed to physically attend the university which was not mentioned to us before and only introduced with the syllabus. As we are predominantly London based distance learners working full time in London this caused logistical and workplace issues as work accommodated to my needs.
6b. How much support do you receive from your employer?
My manager and team leader held regular formal and informal drop in sessions to check on my progress. Initially I only had one afternoon off a week to study but in the final two years they gave me an extra hour off each morning to study as I was struggling with the work load. In years 1 - 4 I had to complete a work place project each year and my manager worked with me to find a suitably stretching project that also benefited the company and expanded my skills. My manager also sent me on a presentation giving course as I had to give presentations as part of course, and sent me on a health and safety and COSHH course which helped with my work. My manager and team leader were always available and proactive in offering help and moved my work around to meet with study demands and when I had to physically attend, take invigilated work place tests or give video presentations. In terms of the apprenticeship the pay was fair. I received a staggered wage from when I started which reached normal analyst level at the end of my 3rd year.
7. How well does your salary/package meet your costs?
In terms of the apprenticeship the pay was fair. I received a staggered wage from when I started which reached normal analyst level at the end of my 3rd year as I was now sufficiently qualified educationally for this level role. For years 4 and 5 my pay was in line with all the other analysts at my level. All of my training expenses such as travel, accommodation and food were met by Thames Water, all I had to pay for were my university books.
8. Are there many opportunities outside of work?
Thames Water is a large and varied company. They offer two paid volunteering days a year - I've used these to go into schools with the RSC to run practical events encouraging students to pursue chemistry careers. However other people have used these for activities such as girl guide camping or for litter picking so there is a wide variety. There are also activates such as an annual quiz where teams across the business play through multiple rounds. There is an annual raft race and an annual 5 a side football tournament again with teams from across the business. There are also smaller site specific activities such as football, netball and running. There are lots of different training classes run across the year as well in topics such as stress management, finance management, career progression etc. so there is a lot going on if you want to get involved. Thames Water also offers various discounts as part of their wider benefits package. These vary from discounts/cashback at highstreets retailers to discount phone plans, discount gym membership or even discount cinema tickets.
9. Would you recommend Thames Water to a friend?
Thames Water has been a great company to work for over five years. They are a really great place to start your career as they constantly provide training above and beyond what is necessary to advance their staff and to maintain continuous improvement. The laboratory is highly accredited so there is a lot of good practise to learn, and this is apparent when attending university labs with other university students vs other full time working distance learners. Thames Water is also a large company so there are plenty of opportunities to progress through slightly different career paths than just lab work. This provides a varied experience which helps to improve other skills such as personal management and presentation and communication which you may not get in a solely chemistry focused business. The team I have worked with have been super friendly and fun to work with, as well as supportive in covering workload or even helping me with my university work. Whenever I've had any problems I've always been able to approach my manager who has listened and resolved them.
I have always been part of the team here rather than just an apprentice or cheap labour. It's been a great place to come and work and even once my apprenticeship ends I am in no rush to start looking elsewhere as I'm very content here.
10. What tips or advice would you give to others applying to Thames Water?
The first thing I would say is do not consider this an easy alternative to traditional university - this is the hard way. If you like evenings and weekends do not apply. Realistically you are looking at 10 hours a week study when you start, rising to about 20 hours a week by the end of year 2. For years 4 and 5 20 hours a week is a minimum to keep up and there will be periods of weeks where your life is just work and study. However remember how much training and experience you are cramming in over 5 years - regular students will have only been in the work force for 2 years at this point so you are putting yourself at a considerable career advantage, as well as all the extra pay you've picked up so decide if you can sacrifice that much personal time. When I first started I had a month or two to settle into my new role and get my basic training out of the way before I started at university. Coming from a college level background rather than a degree level background there will be some teething issues as you work to bring yourself up to the same level of background experience in laboratory practise as others who have at minimum spent 3 years in a university laboratory. If things take you a little bit longer to pick up than others at first it is worth remembering the relative experience gap. However Thames Water know this and are patient to bring you up to speed at a pace that suits you - they will keep training until you are confident and ready to be signed off. Having been involved in the last two assessment centres we are not looking for a new full time employee - we are looking for an apprentice so there are slightly different requirements. We do not expect you to be highly experienced, we also don't expect you to have much interview experience so we are a bit more gentle and try to coax the information out of you. However that being said we can only assess you on what you tell us. Being friendly and approachable as well as being able to hold a conversation is a must so that we can learn enough about you in a short space of time to decide if you are the right fit for the job. What we really want to see is potential to grow as we want you to grow into the role you are training for. We want to see good time management and study skills as they will be absolutely vital to your success. Similarly we want to see good stress/personal management skills. We will help you as much as we can as well as providing professional training on this, but we do not want to push anyone into a roll they are not going to be comfortable in. Personally I found there were times when the course pushed me beyond my limits so it is definitely a challenging experience. This is also why we want you to be confident in talking to us - we want you to be ready to approach us with any problems during your course so we can proactively help you, rather than once it is too much. The assessment days are pretty standard in their format. There's an initial meet and greet with the current apprentices whilst we wait for everyone to arrive - so arrive 20 mins early to make the best impression with this time especially before the others arrive. Then there is a formal networking session with all the assessors for the day. There is then (in no particular order) a ~45 minute very simple practical. Just take your time and work through it methodically and you will be fine - it really is super basic - think GCSE level rather than A level, as we just want to look at your methodical and organised approach to the task. Then there is an interview - they know you're scared and young and inexperienced so they take it really gently and friendly - there's no trick questions and they will ask follow ups to help you get everything they want to know across - they are actually helping you. Finally there is a group (3 person) activity - you need to make sure you get involved, but don't dominate. If you don't say anything there is nothing to mark you on - and if you dominate you don't come across as ready to work within the team - which will be vital as you will be a junior member. Try to encourage any quiet candidates to join in and express their views and be considerate of others. But make sure to be constructive i.e. That's a good suggestion so I think we should now do X, rather than just I think that's a good idea because..., time is limited so you need to keep moving forward. No matter what anyone tells you are being assessed from the instant you step through the front door, even just the meet and greet with the other apprentices. We're not trying to trick you, just get you relaxed and warmed up - but if you don't talk to us it limits your feedback plus we can help you with prep to an extent. The biggest priority in the lab is safety followed by quality - so no funny lab stories of near misses! So put some thought into these two topics. Also do a bit of interview prep - I was so green I hadn't even researched the company when I arrived. It's not vital but it's good background knowlege. I definitely felt unsettled when that question came up and I didn't know the answer; so a look before would have been more calming.
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