Engineering, design and technology - student stories
Andrew Jones, Engineer
What did you study at the OU?
Bachelor of Engineering (Hons)
Did you study to change/further your career or for personal goals?
Yes. I realised after 8 years of working as a Production Operative in an animal by-products processing facility that although this was a relatively well paid position, it was dirty, working long hours, shifts and weekends, and did not stretch me mentally. It was apparent that if I did not force a change, I could do as colleagues had and work the same role until retirement.
What is your educational/occupational background and what led you to higher education study?
At school I did GCSE and A-Levels, originally with the intention of studying Mechanical Engineering at University. However, by that stage I changed direction slightly and studied Music Technology at Doncaster College to HND level. Frustrated by the employability of this qualification, I went and got a succession of manual jobs which led to my role in animal by-products processing. In this role I was elected first as a Union Safety Rep and subsequently as a Workplace Rep. I got back into education training for these roles, which gave me increased confidence and when I found my sister was studying with the OU and how that worked, I decided to give it a shot.
How did you fit your studies around your life?
It was really difficult as even part time study demands 16 hours a week. I had to fit this in around working 12-hour day and night shifts, on a 4-on 4-off pattern. This was pretty easy to do when I got my four rest days, but I found it hardest in the summer, as my work commitments would increase due to covering holidays so that I would often do 60, 72, 84 or even 96 hour weeks. I raised this with my employer, but they were completely disinterested in my studies and gave me no support whatsoever. They even made me use annual leave to attend my final exams if I was rostered each year. Starting my studies, I had a 7 year old daughter and a 4 year old son, so their demands on my time were obvious and mandatory, so I had to be really disciplined in terms of time management which meant I often had my textbooks out during meal breaks at work. I found it frustrating that my study was always during the summer as my wife studied Arts and Humanities with the OU at the same time but her study was the traditional autumn – spring period. However, these challenges no doubt prepare you for the world of work, where dealing with such time pressure can help when faced with real issues you can’t schedule.
Do you feel like the OU has changed you as a person? How?
Yes. I feel much more confident because of my study; I’ve gained skills such as time management, meeting deadlines, scheduling tasks, mitigation against failure etc. However, whilst there is guidance on this in the materials, I believe it cannot be achieved by solely following the course materials – such fortitude to say no to an invite to a party or a barbeque; or sit studying in the kitchen on a red hot day when you want to be in the paddling pool with your kids; or study in the canteen whilst your colleagues play cards or have disruptive banter; such fortitude comes from within.
Did you gain any skills through your OU study that have had an impact at work?
I feel the transferable skills made me a much more effective union representative at work, which led to me being elected to Regional and National committees and speaking at Conferences. I was far more organised which helped me to run campaigns which increased Rep numbers and membership density, won better pay awards and terms and conditions etc. The greatest impact was ultimately that it gave me an opportunity to leave my job in order to accept a place on the Network Rail Engineering Graduate Scheme, which did not represent a massive reduction in pay and also took me off shifts and weekends which were goals I set on starting my study.
Obviously, since changing careers to work as an Engineer, my OU skills have enabled that and been used pretty much on a daily basis.
Have you had any feedback from your employers on your OU study?
The feedback is always that it must have been incredibly difficult to achieve this whilst also working full time and I feel that this is respected even more in some eyes than a flawless degree from a classical university. It is generally a point of conversation which I find is a better ice breaker than “I studied at University of x”.
What particular skills/attributes do you think OU students can offer employer?
I think that OU students will normally be self-motivated, focussed, hardworking, able to work unsupervised, have excellent IT skills, time management skills, maturity and will be “work-ready” to a greater extent than career students.
Did you undertake any work experience whilst studying?
I approached the company I was working for to ask for opportunities and potential mentorship through the engineering manager, but this drew a blank. I did not know of opportunities outside as my study coincided with the economic downturn and austerity and I did not actively look as I had so little spare time due to work, study and family life.
What do you know now that you wish you had known earlier?
I really wish I’d known the opportunities do exist and that companies such as Network Rail would hire someone working towards an engineering degree as a technician or a technical officer, or that they offer year in industry placements which pay a normal salary and are absolutely invaluable for networking and experience and can often lead to eventual full-time employment. There ARE opportunities within large organisations such as NR and they invest time and resource into your development and so they want you to succeed.
What advice do you have for current OU students that want to go into engineering?
Take every part of the study seriously – when advice is given on working towards chartership, take it. Join an institution as a student member and start recording any CPD that you can, get familiar with the UK-SPEC criteria and evaluate yourself against these in a structured way, which will help to identify where you are strong and where you need to work towards the competencies. Chartered Engineer status is held in such esteem that the quicker you can gain this the better, so starting work on that sooner is better. Being involved in the Institution could also present career opportunities from networking, which as a term I personally have no time for, but getting the right contacts can really help.
During my studies I was not working in engineering, which on reflection would have been a massive help with things, especially on my final year project. If the opportunity arises to gain employment with the right company as a technician or similar, this could really help your studies and experience. It could also lead to opportunity post-graduation. On a technical point, I do know that especially in Network Rail, the use of Microsoft Excel in engineering is something you could not possibly avoid, so the more familiar you are with this can only help you. I had little experience of this coming in but made a concerted effort to learn and also to automate it using VBA, creating macros which were the basis of my work which has gained national attention. To learn all of this, I did a free distance learning four week course on Data Analysis through FutureLearn, but the biggest learning outcome is how to articulate what you want to achieve in terms that Google will deliver relevant answers. Also, an understanding of corporate email and calendars is very useful – we use Outlook for all our meeting schedules and email so if you get used to this it will help in the corporate world.
What made you decide to apply for a graduate scheme?
I saw the only way I could change roles after graduation would be to get on to a Graduate Scheme. I used Prospects website to research and apply for these. Whilst some I ruled out as they represented too much of a pay cut or did not suit my life goals, I applied for a lot of these schemes, at least 2 or 3 a week. Some of the applications were fairly straightforward initially, just uploading a CV and completing a short application form, others were much more complex. These involved online tests, some essay questions, etc. I researched what the employers looked for in these and tried to tailor my answers appropriately. Most rejected quickly, I guess due to age and/or my Union activities, though some companies showed keen interest but by that stage I had been offered a place on the Network Rail Engineering Graduate Scheme.
Do you think there are any particular drawbacks/advantages to joining the Network Rail Engineering Graduate scheme as a mature graduate?
Drawbacks – The scheme is two years long and I guess this is to allow graduates to develop into what is often their first “proper” job, adjusting to the demands of the working world and understanding how these differ to those of a full-time student. However, for someone more mature this can result in a slow pace at times.
Advantages – A greater understanding of work and people can make it easy to shine and stand out. I have had conversations with a wide range of people and these have often resulted in opportunities which have led to accelerated professional development. Having worked for a company which treated its employees like inmates, the difference now is outstanding – the responsibility and trust I have been given were so refreshing and empowering and I think some of this is a result of my maturity.
How would you describe a typical work day?
There is no real typical work day on the graduate scheme. The initial six months is a Business Familiarisation phase, where the expectation is you see as much of the business as possible. There is initially corporate and technical training for a fortnight, a week in the host location then six weeks of maintenance placements with the front line maintenance gangs (working shifts where appropriate). After this we track/civil engineers spent a week with different civils disciplines (buildings & structures, drainage, geotechnics) and then two weeks with different track engineers covering various aspects of track. The initial 3 months is arranged for you by the previous year’s graduates, at the end of which you chose your engineering discipline (Electrification & Plant, Civils, Track, Signals & Telecoms or Traction & Rolling Stock), with the following 3 months to be arranged by the individual. For this phase, I spent a week at Leeds Station learning the various aspects of running a station; I spent a week with the Mobile Operations Managers, who are the first responders to operational issues on the infrastructure such as Bridge Strikes, points failure, trespass, fatalities, signal boxes etc.; I spent the following week with the Local Operations Managers, who are effectively the MOMs and Signallers boss, learning how they strategise and deal with the operational concerns which cause section 8 delay minutes; I spent a week with Asset Information who process the data which comes from the track recording train fleet; I visited Capacity Planning who produce the timetables; I spent a week at York Rail Operations Centre (ROC) which is one of 8 ROCs across the country intended to eventually house all signalling operations, spending a day on the signalling simulator which gave me respect for the high pressure job signallers do in times of problems. I also arranged a site tour for Graduates which lasted a week, visiting sites from South Queensferry to Scunthorpe. This phase ended with two more weeks of technical training.
The next 3 phases of my graduate scheme were six months each in Maintenance, Infrastructure Projects and Route Asset Management. Having just completed the Maintenance placement with Doncaster Delivery Unit, I have spent much time on track with maintenance gangs, patrollers, technical site surveys, engineer walks, derailment investigations, product development, etc. I have also worked on a project to move rail wear monitoring from manual surveys to train borne data. I have completed this in such a way for Doncaster that there is interest from other DUs around the country to use the systems I developed on their patch. This has resulted in the formation of a working group centrally with my work as its basis. I have also been asked to lead a separate working group on Emergency Speed Restriction design. I feel that this has come about as a result of my hard work and it is to test my abilities to ask me to lead this.