‘I was bored of a classroom environment but still loved learning,’ said Katie. ‘The turning point was when we were forced to write personal statements in college. I sat there, none of us knew what we were doing but everyone was just writing. It’s like my friends were on auto-pilot.’

‘At the end of a personal statement session, a teacher came up to me and asked “Where’s your work?” I tried to explain that I wasn’t interested in university and was exploring other options…I was given a detention. My first ever detention, for not writing a personal statement.’

Instead of writing her personal statement, she spent her detention researching alternatives to university. ‘I searched for apprenticeships online and found two I wanted to apply for. Microsoft and another company that took my fancy. I prepared draft applications for both.’

At the end of detention, when the teacher asked to read her personal statement Katie stood her ground. ‘I was pretty nervous, but I shared my research and the companies that were offering these new kinds of apprenticeships. My tutor didn’t look too put out. From that moment on, things started making a lot more sense and I felt a lot happier about the way I was heading.’

After lots of in-depth research on different organisations offering degree apprenticeships, Katie settled on Microsoft. ‘The culture of a company wasn’t something I was originally looking at as I searched for apprenticeship opportunities, but it was something I picked up on subconsciously,’ Katie explained. ‘It was only when I did more research into Microsoft’s mission statement, which is to “empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more”, that I realised Microsoft would be a great company to work for.’

Life as a Degree Apprentice

Katie - Degree ApprenticeKatie started her apprenticeship at Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading as a Communications Manager. ‘Apprenticeships aren’t just about making tea and coffee. You’re given a real job with real responsibility right from the onset.’

‘It was my role to make sure the culture and morale in my department was good and that the team felt valued. I was responsible for writing communications on behalf of my department’s Director to go out to the team to make sure everyone was on track with what was going on. I planned out a communications rhythm including when emails would be going out, and how often as well as how frequently we would all meet face-to-face as a team to celebrate success.’

‘There wasn’t really an average day or an average week for my apprenticeship – what I was working on was really varied, which is great.’ As most apprentices are new to the world of work, there is plenty of support throughout to help them learn and grow. ‘I’d have a weekly one-to-one with my manager to make sure I was on track and I had the support there which was really important to me.’

Part of the settling in process for many apprentices is discovering more about the people around them. ‘I was lucky to get exposure to a lot of meetings and other people at Microsoft, whether they were working with me directly or not. Building my network was something that was really important to me as an apprentice so I could understand what other people’s job roles were.’

‘Degree apprenticeships aren’t just about settling into working life. Katie was also studying for a degree on Aston’s Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship. ‘It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it is extremely rewarding.’

‘The beauty of a degree apprenticeship is that you can immediately apply what you learn to what you do. It’s better than learning a module and using it three years later. That wasn’t going to work for me,’ Katie explained. ‘The topics I studied that related really closely to my job role were the best. The theory sunk in quicker because I could apply it at work. What I have learnt through my degree, I still use now on a weekly basis.’

‘Microsoft gave me one day a week away from my job to dedicate to studying. There’s a flexible working policy, so my manger was quite lenient if I needed additional time, especially around deadlines, I could take an extra day off during the week to catch up, and I’d make up my hours when I was less busy.’

‘A degree apprenticeship isn’t a nine to five thing – but show me a university student who hasn’t worked in the evenings to meet deadlines!’ Katie stressed that mastering working full time with studying for a degree is all about getting the balance right. ‘I found it really difficult to start with but I had to learn to balance it. I would try and wake up an hour earlier and get some work done in the office before I started my day as I found that’s my most productive time. That meant I had my evenings free to see my friends and keep up the social side of the balance.’

‘I had plenty of support from Aston University to help keep me on track. I had a really great tutor who was there for me every single step of the way. We had one-to-ones on Fridays and she gave me great feedback, especially when it came to my final project. This helped to set me up for success.’

Raising awareness

Katie - Raising AwarenessNot only has Katie spent the last three years working full time as well as studying for her degree, she has been busy promoting degree apprenticeships as an alternative to university.

‘On top of my day job I also invested a lot of time in spreading the word about apprenticeships giving talks at events at schools and educating teachers about what apprenticeships really are.’ Katie explained that there are a lot of misconceptions about degree apprenticeships, so she wanted to use her experience to combat the myths surrounding them. ‘I wanted to help people to understand that apprentices are not just there to make tea and coffee and it’s not just the trades that offer them. You can do an apprenticeship in anything you want and become anything you want.’

Katie started her apprenticeship in 2016, not long after they first began being offered at Aston University. ‘At the beginning of my apprenticeship, trying to get access to schools was really difficult. They wanted their students to go to university because that’s what they were scored on for rankings.’

‘Now it is getting easier because teachers are becoming more open minded. There are more success stories out there from young people who have graduated and are doing amazing things, so it’s starting to become a more accepted route.’

Despite not originally seeing the value of Katie’s choice not to go to university, her school invited her back to share her experience. ‘I represented Microsoft at a careers fair they were holding for students. In the past they would have just had universities there to promote higher education opportunities, so it was brilliant to see apprenticeship providers included too. I must have spoken to 100 students that day, there was so much interest in the opportunities degree apprenticeships have to offer.’

It’s not just schools that can be a barrier to access though, parents often heavily influence their children’s future, so it is important that they understand all the opportunities available. ‘I was really lucky, my parents were very supportive the whole way through,’ said Katie. ‘I have two older sisters, my oldest sister went to university and did a business and law degree and has a very successful job now. My middle sister didn’t go to university and went straight into work and she’s really successful too. My parents saw them take different routes and they both came out well. I chose the third option of an apprenticeship, so we’ve all done different things.’

Not all parents are as understanding as Katie’s, with many seeing university as the only option for their child. ‘It’s so important to have parents buy into it as well. I spoke at an apprenticeship event hosted by a charity with my dad that was aimed at parents to help them understand apprenticeships. There were a lot of parents that didn’t really want their son or daughter to go down the apprenticeship route, which is a shame. But by the end of the session we had spoken with lots of parents who were interested to find out more about degree apprenticeships, so hopefully we changed their perception.’

Katie’s commitment to spreading the word about degree apprenticeships makes a real difference to show young people, their parents and teachers that there isn’t one prescribed direction for your future and all routes are equally valid choices. ‘Apprenticeships aren’t the easy option, working full time and doing a qualification is hard. Whether you do a Level 3 apprenticeship or a degree apprenticeship, they are all difficult and require a lot of hard work.’

A different experience

Katie - Degree Apprentice - 2Many young people go to university not just to continue their education and to boost their career prospects, but also for the student experience. University is an opportunity to move away from home, meet new people and get involved with everything student life has to offer. Degree apprentices are balancing working full time with studying for a degree, so the experience is very different.

‘Last week I was at a school giving a talk about my experience as a degree apprentice and a student asked me if I have a social life! I don’t feel like I missed out on the opportunities going to university gives you though. There are options as an apprentice to move out and live with other apprentices so you can have a similar experience living away from home and living with your friends.’

‘I am part of a community of apprentices who I go for lunch with and meet up with outside of work. When I started my apprenticeship they became my main group of friends and we became a really tightknit group,’ said Katie. ‘I could go to them for advice and see if they were struggling with the same things as me. You are all in the same position even if you aren’t doing the same job.’

‘I don’t regret not going to university for a minute. Granted, I don’t go out as much as a typical uni student does, but you get everything else that you would get from university plus you build networks and friendships for life.’

A degree apprenticeship offers much more than just a standard nine to five and a university education. Katie has been able to take advantage of opportunities that she wouldn’t have come across as a traditional student. ‘It’s impossible to just pick one highlight! I have met a few MPs and spoken in parliament about my experience. I also met Theresa May when she was the Prime Minister to talk about apprenticeships in STEM when she visited Microsoft.’

‘There have been loads of highlights for me along the way, but the people I have met would have to be the top one,’ she said. ‘It’s been the people that have made me love working at Microsoft and made me want to stay. I have met such a diverse and inspirational range of people and built my network.’

‘When I was at school I would never have thought I would form such good friendships with people who are a lot older than me and quite different to me. Some of my really good friends are in their forties and have kids! With university I just wouldn’t have got that. It has helped me to develop as a person learning from a diverse range of people, different, ages, careers and backgrounds.’

‘I think what has been really great about working for Microsoft is that they’ve given me the same opportunities as anyone else who might be coming in at a different stage of their career. They put faith in you and they allow you to fail fast and learn fast and they aren’t afraid to let you do that.’

Looking to the future

Katie - Looking to the futureNow Katie has completed her degree apprenticeship she is continuing to grow her career and experience at Microsoft. ‘When I finished my apprenticeship I started a new role as a Customer and Partner Experience Manger in the Customer Advocacy Team at Microsoft. That’s the team that connects with customers and tells great customer stories.’

Microsoft mainly sell their products to businesses and it’s Katie’s job to share their experiences using their products. ‘I have to understand their story, the products they have adopted and how it plays a part in their digital transformation. Then bring it to life through case studies, videos and social amplifications through LinkedIn and Twitter.’

‘This is good for the Microsoft brand as it helps us to sell products to companies in similar sectors, but it is also really beneficial for the other company as it promotes their brand, boosts their recruitment and also aligns them with Microsoft.’

‘I absolutely love my new role. My favourite customers to work with are the charities,’ she said. ‘I love talking to customers and that we are there to help them and not just in a sales capacity. I’ve been able to meet some great people and hear their stories,’ Katie said. ‘Looking back at the videos we’ve created and seeing the content amplified is really rewarding.’

Katie’s degree apprenticeship took three years to complete and now she has settled into her new role, she is starting to think about what the future will hold. ‘It’s challenging to get to the point where you know exactly what you will be doing in the future, especially in the technology sector where we don’t even know what job roles will exist in a few years’ time, but that’s what makes it exciting.’

‘What I’ve learned from my experience at Microsoft is that I really enjoy helping people. I love the role I’m doing at the moment and I hope to stay in it for a long time so I can continue to learn and grow,’ Katie said. ‘I’d love to stay in the tech space within Microsoft and learn more about how we can help charities and smaller businesses to understand their challenges and how as a big tech company we can give them a platform.’

‘Working at Microsoft for the last few years has helped me to identify my core values and what is important to me. So whatever the future holds for me I know definitely that it will include helping people.’

Advice for those considering a Degree Apprenticeship

Katie - AdviceDeciding on your future can be daunting, so Katie is sharing her advice for those considering applying for a degree apprenticeship. ‘Make sure you do your research. Think about your values and what you are interested in. What sort of industry do you want to work in? What sort of role do you want? Where do you get your energy from?’

‘For someone looking at degree apprenticeships, it is important to think about how you like to learn. Are you a hands-on learner? Or do you prefer a more structured teaching process? You won’t get that on an apprenticeship as it is much more independent and you have to be self-disciplined to stay on track.’

‘If your main reason for considering university is for the social aspect, a degree apprenticeship isn’t going to be for you. Instead it is about building your career while getting an amazing qualification at the same time, it’s not easy work!’

‘Once you have identified your values and that you are ready for the hard work ahead, there’s nothing stopping you. I can’t see the downside of degree apprenticeships and I don’t regret for a second that I chose one as it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. As long as you are a determined person and ready to commit to working and learning there is no reason not to consider a degree apprenticeship. Go for it!’