Helen James OBE took up a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at the age of 16 with Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd (VSEL), Barrow in Furness. Little did she know, this large regional employer never recruited girls as mechanical engineers — Helen was one of four that year in the very first cohort, and the only one that was not from a grammar school.

With an incredible career spanning over 40 years, Helen has been a pioneer in her field, an inspiration for women entering a traditionally male-dominated sector and a testament to just how life-changing and career-defining taking up an apprenticeship can be.

What type of apprenticeship did you undertake?

I did a Mechanical Engineering Apprenticeship that qualified me to work in an Engineering Drawing Office.

Why did you choose to pursue an apprenticeship over other educational paths?

I wanted to earn money, give myself financial purchasing power, help my mum with income and I didn’t want to stay on at school.

How old were you when you started your apprenticeship, and what motivated you to embark on this journey at that particular time in your life?

I was 16. I loved math and physics, and Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd was a big company hiring many apprentices. I wanted a job that would make me financially independent like men who were engineers supporting their families. It seemed like a clear choice. However, I didn’t know that VSEL had never hired girls as mechanical engineers. That year, I was one of four girls, the first group, and the only one not from a grammar school.

In 1978, it was rare for women, especially in Barrow, a working-class town with limited options for girls. My dad left home when I was 15, leaving my mum with four children. I promised myself not to depend on anyone. This influenced my career. I married a Barrow boy at 20 during my first year at university.

After graduating, I left VSEL and worked at Marconi Space Systems in Portsmouth. I have two children and I quickly returned to work after each, proud to be the main earner and successfully balancing work, childcare, and leadership as a senior professional.

What challenges did you face during your apprenticeship, and how did overcoming them influence your resilience and determination in your career?

In 1978, Barrow was mostly VSEL and it employed 13,000 people. I didn’t know anyone working there and although I saw ships being launched, I didn’t understand what they did. This sparked my interest in heavy engineering and the unknown, driving my career.

I moved around for jobs, from VSEL to the space industry. Then, I went into teaching in colleges and universities, each time in a different part of the country — increasing my independence and salary.

As one of the first female mechanical engineering apprentices in a traditional town, I faced curiosity, protective attitudes, and sexist remarks but most people were generous in sharing their knowledge.

Working in the engineering training school was challenging but exciting. In the works, I faced a lack of nearby female toilets, but I persisted. Despite the challenges, I took my role as a trailblazer seriously, and I am proud of the changes I and others brought about.

How did your apprenticeship shape your early career?

I spent a year in the engineering apprentice training school, where I learned various skills like turning, fitting, welding, and more. After that, I worked in the North Shop for a year, focusing on building surface-to-air missile launchers. I apprenticed under experienced workers, gaining knowledge in the fitting trade. In the next two years, I explored different aspects of engineering, including pattern making, welding, and working in the armaments drawing office. I loved my apprenticeship, balancing work with studying for my BTEC National and Higher National qualifications. I excelled in the apprentice awards and won the best 3rd Year Engineering Apprentice and Premiere Apprentice of the Year.

The apprenticeship fuelled my passion for large engineering projects, instilling pride in what Barrow built – ships, submarines, field guns, and missile launchers. VSEL’s apprenticeship was highly regarded worldwide. The commitment, discipline, and passion for learning endured, shaping my lifelong dedication to continuous learning and supporting others. Working with experienced mentors taught me valuable skills and instilled a deep respect for all roles in the engineering process, recognising the importance of each in creating submarines, field guns, and tanks.

Reflecting on your apprenticeship, what were the key skills and knowledge you gained that set the foundation for your career progression?

Everyone is important and no one is superior — commitment and teamwork are key. I was dedicated to learning but realised that staying in the drawing office wasn’t for me. Luckily, I did well in my BTEC and was accepted into Leicester University to study for an honours degree in engineering. Education and learning have always been motivating factors throughout my career.

45 years later, I was delighted to have been a judge on the BAE Systems UK Apprentice of the Year Awards — it was the upmost honour. I believe that being an apprentice affords the most valuable learning opportunities that anyone can have.

I would not be who I am today or where I have got to without my apprenticeship. It was hugely influential, and I am grateful to those who accepted my application, interviewed me and took a punt on me all those many years ago when women were not recruited into engineering. Thank you!

As a senior leader now, how do you incorporate the lessons learned during your apprenticeship into your leadership style and decision-making?

As the former Deputy Vice Chancellor at Canterbury Christ Church University and in my current position leading boards, I focus on encouraging a mindset of ‘learning from…’ and stress the importance of coaching. Two values I strongly hold from my engineering apprenticeship days are my constant pursuit of excellence and the importance of teamwork. I firmly believe that in a big project, you can’t settle for “good enough.” Every part plays a role, and if one piece isn’t up to par, it could cause problems later. It’s crucial to do the job correctly the first time, rather than just meeting the minimum requirements, to ensure the overall success of the project.

Were there mentors or role models during your apprenticeship who played a significant role in your development? How did they inspire or guide you?

I didn’t really understand the idea of mentors and role models back then but looking back, I realise I learned a lot from some of the experienced workers.

Some shared their knowledge, while others let me take on tasks, which I enjoyed. Some provided learning chances, like driving a field gun or being in a crane whilst they heat-treated a gearwheel.

A few lecturers discouraged me from going to university and told me I would be wasting my time — and made it hard for me to visit them, but this only strengthened my decision to leave. Encountering negative role models in my career inspired positive actions.

I’ve been fortunate to have had colleagues at all levels supporting me, championing my causes, supporting my application to new roles and opportunities, enabling access to higher degrees, supporting my development, and believing in me — they were all just genuinely kind, ‘salt of the earth’ people.

In what ways do you actively support and advocate for apprenticeships within your current role as a senior leader?

As a senior leader, I supported bringing apprenticeships to Canterbury Christ Church University in various areas. In my role at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, I champion and promote Engineering Technician and Incorporated Engineer memberships. I continue this advocacy in my position on the Engineering Council’s Education and Skills Advisory Panel. Over my 40-year career, I’ve worked with schools, colleges, outside groups, young individuals, and influencers, always reinforcing the importance and influence my apprenticeship had on my career and personal development.

Reflecting on your entire career journey, how do you see the broader impact of apprenticeships on professional growth and industry innovation?

People who’ve gone through apprenticeships gain confidence, maturity, and a strong work ethic that school or college alone can’t provide. The sense of taking initiative, which apprenticeships foster, has been a crucial and continuous aspect of my career. Instead of waiting for things to come to you, take the initiative, learn on your own, be curious, collaborate with others, and strive to do your best.

Do you have a proud moment or achievement in your career that you attribute, in part, to the foundation laid during your apprenticeship that you can share?

In 2020, I received an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list for my contributions to higher education and charities. This recognition is tied to my role as Deputy Vice Chancellor, work on engineering education policy, STEM outreach, leadership in the IMechE, establishing a science centre, and founding the Engineering, Design, Growth, and Enterprise Hub in the South East.

I would not be who I am today or where I have got to without my apprenticeship. It was hugely influential, and I am grateful to those who accepted my application, interviewed me and took a punt on me all those many years ago when women were not recruited into engineering. Thank you!

Katy Lennon is our Principal Consultant of Training and Apprenticeship Appointments and a big advocate for apprenticeships across the country.

If you’re looking to recruit leaders into your apprenticeship organisation, get in touch via Linkedin or send her an email.