Technical Apprentice Case Study - Tom Healey

06 February 2024

Name: Tom Healey

Employer: University of Manchester

Role: Apprentice Laboratory Technician

Level: 3

Time in role: 1 year and 4 months

Why did you decide to do an apprenticeship? 


After leaving high school I chose the standard route of going to college and completing my A-Levels, it was during this time that I started to realise that this form of “textbook” learning wasn’t suited for me and that a more practical hands-on approach would work better. In the interim I worked full time and enjoyed the independence that paid work granted. This is when I started researching other options to delve into and I found the apprenticeship that I’m on now. I still wanted to continue a career in science so when I saw the option of a laboratory technician it was the best of both worlds. I could study a supporting qualification alongside it (Btec Applied science) to gain relevant theoretical knowledge and could also hone my practical skills whilst earning a decent salary.


What are your roles and responsibilities? 


As part of my apprenticeship with University of Manchester I rotate around different labs in different areas of expertise and do a wide variety of roles. So far, I have been in chemistry teaching labs, NMR laboratories and I am currently situated in NGI. Whilst each area differs in terms of roles, some have remained consistent throughout: general laboratory maintenance e.g. cleaning and preparing solutions, calibration of equipment which can range from a simple pipette to a larger instrument such as a HPLC, and waste management. I mostly enjoy working with instruments so across my placements I have honed my sills on these. In my current placement at NGI I look after two instruments: an XRD (X-ray Diffraction) and Raman Microscope. I perform weekly calibration of these instruments as well as changing the optics within them to allow for a wider variety of experiments. This gives me a chance to work alongside some of the users and to assist their measurements.


What did you do before your apprenticeship? 


Before my apprenticeship I had completed my GCSEs and had chosen to then go on to A-Levels. I chose Maths, Chemistry and Biology as I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the sciences. During this time, I was a part-time worker at my local butchers. It quickly became apparent when I started my A-Levels that the standard textbook learning wasn’t suited for me and so I took the decision to drop out of college. In the period after I left college, I filled a full-time position at the butchers and worked there whilst looking for other options. It is in this period that I found the apprenticeship I am currently on.



What have you gained from your apprenticeship? 


For me the foremost important thing that this apprenticeship has given me is a plethora of laboratory experience not just in general labs but also quite niche areas. For example, in my most recent placement I’ve gained cleanroom experience. I think about it like this, many people gain very little lab experience before university. I have already had over a year of lab experience, and I haven’t even started my degree yet. Similarly, my employer will pay for my chemistry degree so not only will I not have student debt, but I will be in a far more favourable position, especially in terms of experience, when it comes to the practical elements of a chemistry degree.


What are the benefits to completing an apprenticeship over other pathways choices (eg: A-Levels)? 


It’s a different way of learning. If you’re like me and struggle with concentration in a classroom setting, an apprenticeship gives you an alternate route into your favourite subjects. I’m a practical learner and so learn by hands on experience which I am granted in an apprenticeship. Similarly, I’m very independent and like earning my own money. On an apprenticeship I have gained relevant experience in the area I want to go into, and I’m also paid to do it which allows me greater freedom outside of work.


Where do you see yourself after your apprenticeship is completed? 


I would like to fulfil a full-time position at the university within the technical team at chemistry, potentially in teaching as I had a great experience there on one of my placements. Equally I wouldn’t mind pursuing a higher-level apprenticeship to really hone my technical skills.


Did anything surprise you about your apprenticeship? If so, what?


Yes. I think the most surprising thing about my programme was the extensive variety of placements. Obviously, the placements are across all the sciences such as chemistry, biology, physics etc. but the number of areas within these subjects is insane. You really can go into anything ranging from research to core facilities to teaching. From a mortuary to nuclear. It really is endless.


What support has been valuable to you? What tips would you give to apprentice managers?


I think the best piece of advice for any manager is to really listen to your apprentices. Having a manager that you can talk to about anything be it work related or personal makes all the difference. I think fostering a healthy relationship is paramount and ultimately benefits both parties.


Do you have any advice to others who are considering an apprenticeship?


Do your research! You’d be surprised how many different apprenticeship standards there are. My high school didn’t tell us anything about apprenticeships and the rhetoric that they are for less academically abled is very misleading and frankly not true at all. You can find an apprenticeship in nearly anything so just research it.