I started my career at O2 as an apprentice when I was just 19. Fast forward seven years, and I'm a Supply Chain Vendor Manager responsible for all mobile phone accessories sold online and across the UK's 450 O2 stores.
Like most people, I assumed I'd do my A-levels and go on to university. But within two weeks of starting sixth form, I knew it wasn't for me. I didn't feel particularly passionate about any of my subjects and I was hungry to get out in the world and start a career. So when I saw the O2 Apprenticeship scheme advertised in my local paper, it seemed the perfect option for me. It meant I could work towards qualifications while earning a salary and gaining experience in the tech sector, which struck me as a really exciting and fast-paced industry to be a part of.
When I joined O2, I started as an Advanced Apprentice in the Operations department and worked for two years as a Technical Support Analyst. Like all O2's apprentices, I achieved a Level 3 NVQ in IT as well as a Technical Certificate for IT and telecoms professionals which I studied for part-time during the scheme. When I heard that O2 was launching a Higher Apprenticeship programme to complement the Advanced programme, I applied immediately and was one of the first people on the scheme. So you could call me a Higher Apprenticeship pioneer! As part of my new role, I was responsible for coordinating the apprenticeship programme for new recruits, to make sure that the scheme was as strong as possible.
As well as the obvious benefits of on-the-job learning, one of the best things about being an apprentice at O2 is the huge number of opportunities that are open to you. Last year, O2 gave me what you could pretty much call a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - travelling to Johannesburg for One Young World, a three day conference where young representatives from over 100 countries gather to discuss various issues relevant to young people. It's organised in association with O2's Think Big programme, so 10 places were up for grabs for "Talentees" - people who have joined O2 through its Talentum programme, which brings young talent into the business. The application process was tough; I had to submit a 3,000 word essay and a video which was judged by Ronan Dunne himself, O2's UK CEO. The application was challenging for a reason - the conference was incredible, with speakers including Richard Branson, Winnie Mandela, Bob Geldof and Kofi Annan.
After the conference, we were encouraged to take what we had learnt home and apply it at a local level. It occurred to me at One Young World that, while everyone was talking about the gap between education and the workplace, no-one had identified apprenticeships as the perfect bridge for that gap. I had already got so much out of my apprenticeship and was frustrated that they were still being viewed as a secondary option or 'back-up plan' for less academic students. That's why I decided to start a project championing apprenticeships, trying to increase understanding about what they really involve, and what you can get out of them. For the last six months, I've been going into schools all over Leeds to talk to students about my experiences as an apprentice. I also recently helped create a video with Leeds City Council to promote National Apprenticeship Week, which was shown in every school in the city. It was even retweeted by the Duke of York, which I can safely say was my first royal retweet!
When my Higher Apprenticeship was coming to an end, I applied for the role as Supply Chain Vendor Manager. The supply chain team is quite small - there are only 30 of us, most of whom have been in the business a lot longer than me, so I have to hold my own alongside more experienced colleagues. My role involves a lot of responsibility, as my recommendation will determine what products we sell in which stores around the country - and what products we shouldn't sell at all. The decisions I make have a really clear commercial impact so the pressure's really on, but that's one of the things I love most about it and I'm learning new things every day.
I would never be where I am now if it hadn't been for my apprenticeship. Not only has it given me skills, confidence and the opportunity to work with some brilliant people, but it's also highlighted to me a real problem that needs addressing. MPs have recently called for an 'apprenticeship revolution', and I think that's exactly what we need - for people to stop underestimating apprenticeships and see them for the genuine and valuable opportunities they really are.