Tuesday, 27 March 2012

On the right track

Shauni O'Neill, station master
As the woman tube driver on the Northern Line announced the other morning, in a clear and cheerful voice, that she was waiting for signals to change before moving on, I was reminded of smiling face of Shauni O'Neill on the front cover of the latest City and Guilds magazine Broadsheet. At the age of 15, with a clutch of GCSEs at A and B grade, she beat 7,000 applicants to become one of the 15 apprentices taken on by Transport for London (TfL). She studied signalling, controlling, train driving amongst other things,  undertaking 100 City and Guild study units and becoming National Apprentice of the Year in 2011. 

Shauni describes how passengers and staff alike laughed at her first station announcements as a trainee, because she sounded so happy. “You’re not really meant to sound that happy when you’re telling people about delays on the Metropolitan Line.” Now she is the station manager at Chalfont and Latimer underground station at the age of 18, earning a good salary and with ambitions to reach the top in TfL. As Shauni points out, if she had taken the university route, she would have begun accumulating debt rather than earning a good salary and well on the way on her chosen career path.

At last there seems to be a shift away from the absurd New Labour dream of seeing 50 per cent of the population going to university. Quite apart from the sheer cost, the dubious nature of the some of the degree courses and the high dropout rate, it is increasingly recognised that there are other routes to building a successful working life and career. This is particularly so in the world of construction and engineering, powerfully brought home earlier this month at the Big Bang Science andEngineering Fair at the NEC Birmingham.
Thumbs up for the Big Bang Fair
As a  non-executive director of EngineeringUK, which dreamt up the idea of the Big Bang Fair in 2008, I found this year's fair even more exhilarating, entertaining and inspirational than ever.  Touring the exhibition with the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, we met a number of young people who were making  informed decisions about the right track to take. A couple of Year 13 students, demonstrating their innovative robotic device, talked enthusiastically about their plans. One is aiming to take a degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Southampton University, the other is delighted to be taking up an apprenticeship with a diesel engine company in Gloucestershire. 

Making the right decision is more important than taking the one that is perceived to be the 'better' decision. The Big Bang Fair is the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths for young people in the UK. Everything is aimed at showing just how many exciting and rewarding opportunities there are out there for them with the right experience and qualifications. With over three days of wall-to-wall science and engineering shows, activities and workshops, the Fair attracted 56,000 visitors, including young people and very importantly their parents and teachers. 

Shauni O'Neill recounts how her teachers told her she was too intelligent to do an apprenticeship - "but now they've seen that I've done well and it's a viable option, I've been invited back to school to talk about it."

 Captivating:  flying penguins at the record breaking Big Bang Fair 2012

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