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  4. "Absolutely go for it" says Tom, digital apprentice at Unilever

"Absolutely go for it" says Tom, digital apprentice at Unilever

At just 20 years old, degree apprentice, Tom Amer has an enviable employment history and professional experience. Two years into his four-year apprenticeship programme, Tom has delivered million-pound savings to his employer, taught hundreds of young people to code, and been flown to New York to talk about it.

Not bad for the boy who broke the mold – and surprised his teachers – by eschewing university and opting for in-work learning instead. We caught up with Tom for a quick chat about his experiences, working for Unilever whilst studying for his Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship with The Open University.

The first thing Tom wanted to do was thank us for the opportunity to talk about degree apprenticeships for young people.

I couldn’t find any information about degree apprenticeships when I was looking into them. Everything was orientated towards applying to university. All the advice at school was about UCAS applications. But that was never something I wanted to do. So I’m really pleased to be able to talk about degree apprenticeships as an alternative for people like me.

Tom Amer, digital apprentice, Unilever

Tom explains that, of the 180 students in his year, only a handful decided to take an apprenticeship, and even fewer chose a degree apprenticeship.

"People have old-fashioned views about apprenticeships,’ says Tom. "They hear apprenticeship and think engineering or bricklaying. They don’t realise apprenticeships can be business-based too."

Asked why he chose the degree apprenticeship route, Tom explains that he wasn’t ‘traditionally’ academically oriented. Bright and motivated, Tom always preferred self-directed learning and the application of learning above just ‘sitting and being taught’. The idea of three-years in lecture theatres and seminar rooms just didn’t appeal to him.

The promise of earning while learning was also very attractive, and Tom is delighted to be getting a degree with none of the associated debt.

Now halfway through his degree apprenticeship, Tom works full-time for Unilever, with 20% of his time ring-fenced for study. He talks passionately about working with cutting edge technology and applying his learning directly to his work.

"I really enjoy the hands-on practical experience I get with my apprenticeship. I learn something on Friday that I can apply in my work on Monday. My learning is in context and put into practice straight away. Some of my friends at university are still sitting in classrooms getting no practical experience. I’ve got two years under my belt already."

Like all Open University apprentices, Tom is supported by his own team of academic and practice tutors.

Module tutors teach and guide Tom through his academic curriculum delivered partly online and face-to-face. Meanwhile, his practice tutor acts as liaison between Tom, his employer and The Open University, visiting his workplace every three months.

This enables them to plan ahead, to ensure both Tom and Unilever benefit from meaningful projects. To illustrate this, Tom was proud to highlight a project that he worked on to implement a new security system to protect Unilever’s laptops.

Using the project management and security architecture skills he’d developed in the past six months, Tom and his colleague planned and rolled out company-wide changes that delivered huge savings to the business.

The first thing Tom wanted to do was thank us for the opportunity to talk about degree apprenticeships for young people.

Unilever have been amazing. They value apprenticeships as employees and give us real projects. I can hardly believe it when I get to say, at 20 years old, I’ve worked on a project that has delivered around £2m in cost savings for the Cyber Security team, as well as saving time and reducing risk. It is beneficial for my professional development and confidence, but also benefits Unilever, who have been incredibly supportive of my learning and growth in the business.

Tom Amer, digital apprentice, Unilever

Tom’s degree apprenticeship is delivered through The Open University, via work-based blended learning. This means Tom mostly learns online, fitting study flexibly around his other commitments, but he does opt for some of his academic tutorials to be in person. 

"I go into London School of Economics (The Open University offers its tutorials in suitable spaces near to the apprentice’s locality) for face-to-face tutorials, when they’re needed. I enjoy that. It means I get the “on campus” experience, but with all the benefits of work-based learning and online support."

Asked whether he feels he has missed out on a more traditional university experience, Tom is resolutely satisfied with his choice, describing it as ‘one of the best decisions I’ve ever made’.

"University was only ever my fallback position. I always knew I wanted an apprenticeship. I don’t feel like I’m missing out at all. I’m out here learning, earning and advancing my career. I get to work at the absolute cutting edge of technology here. I just wouldn’t have got that with a traditional university experience."

Tom has embraced every opportunity that Unilever have presented him with and had some amazing experiences as a result.  

Unilever support iamtheCODE, a movement to enable 1 million young women and girls’ coders by 2030. After taking part in a two-day ‘hackathon’ hosted by his employer, Tom jumped at the chance to help run a weekly coding club for girls aged 11-18.

After six months, Tom took over and now leads the club himself. He speaks at schools to promote the opportunity, recruits mentors and delivers classes.

His dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. In September 2019 Tom was invited to New York as part of the UN General Assembly, to present the work that iamtheCODE have delivered with Unilever. Tom was also nominated by his Open University tutor to receive a prestigious Certificate of Merit from Tech Partnership for his work. Reflecting on the experience, Tom says:

"One piece of advice I’ve really taken to heart is “Always say yes to something”. You don’t know where it can lead. I agreed to take part in a two-day event and have ended up training all these girls to code and been flown across the world to talk about it."

Thinking about his future, Tom hopes to stay with Unilever.

"I definitely hope to have a long-term career at Unilever. The culture here is so supportive. They don’t just say hello and pretend to be interested. They really care about how I’m doing. During the Covid-19 lockdown, I received a personal call from the VP. It wasn’t about work. It was just to check how I was. That’s been typical of my experience at the company."

At the end of his degree apprenticeship, neither Tom nor Unilever are obliged to continue the relationship. However, he and his manager are already in discussion about his future opportunities at Unilever. Judging by what this ambitious and driven degree apprentice has achieved so far, we’re sure they’ll be keen to keep him.

If you are interested in learning more about degree apprenticeships, contact us.

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