After 15 years as a network specialist, Simon jumped at the chance to broaden his skills with a Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship. Not only that but he managed to get married, move house and welcome his second child at the same time.
We caught up with Simon to talk honestly about the opportunities and challenges of apprentice life, and managing a long-term health condition alongside work and study.
With 15 years’ experience under his belt, Simon Lodge doesn’t fit the previous image that many people used to hold of apprentices. “People are sometimes surprised I’m an apprentice,” he says. “My friends tease me because I’ve got a student card and get discounts everywhere.”
An established professional with an already distinguished career in IT, Simon had managed multi-million-pound infrastructure projects before starting his apprenticeship. But without any formal qualifications – and in an industry when change is the only constant – Simon was keen to develop and diversify his knowledge.
So when his employer began recruiting to its Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship, delivered by The Open University, Simon seized the opportunity.
“I left school fairly early and was a mechanic from 16 to 18. I’d always been interested in that aspect of things – plugging things together, seeing how they work – and quickly progressed into working with computers. But my experience was very infrastructure heavy and there’s been a shift in my industry towards software-defined systems, open source software, automation… So doing the apprenticeship felt like a great opportunity to flesh out some gaps in my existing knowledge and put me on a firm footing for future changes in the industry.”
At first, Simon found it a big adjustment. “I’d not been in formal education for over a decade,” he explains. “Plus, my wife was expecting when I signed up for the apprenticeship, and the baby was born about four or five months in. So it was hard with lack of sleep and concentration for a while.”
In between sleepless nights and nappy changes, Simon would spend 80% of his time at work and 20% of his time studying. He remembers the very first module was a particularly challenging maths unit and it was difficult to re-engage with arithmetic after a lifetime of using calculators. But he soon got into the swing of things.
I don’t think I really knew what I was getting myself into, to be honest. It’s been a lot of work and the first six months I found difficult. But it’s been enjoyable too. My line manager was fantastic about making sure my route was flexible enough that if I needed time, then I had it. And my practice tutor (Michelle Dewey) from the OU has been consistently supportive. She's always given me good advice and made sure that if I've got any questions or issues that she follows up and she makes sure my tutors get back to me. I couldn't really ask for more, to be honest.Simon Lodge, Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprentice
Despite the challenges, Simon has been delighted with the new knowledge, expertise, and confidence that his degree apprenticeship has given him. It hasn’t only benefitted him professionally, it’s also delivering better outcomes for his employer and the customers they serve.
“The degree apprenticeship has changed me from a T-shaped engineer – with strong skills and specialism in the networking space – to a much more rounded and multi-skilled engineer. It’s improved the work I’m doing and the outcomes for the customers that I’m responsible for. It’s had a transformative effect. I already had this body of practical knowledge but I’m building on that now with theory, and being able to do both at the same time has been invaluable.”
In fact, Simon feels that degree apprenticeships give learners a real advantage over graduates from traditional university degrees, as they provide both academic theory and practical experience of IT problem-solving.
Sometimes, when we bring in new hires that have come straight from a traditional degree, they've got all the professional qualifications and they're accredited up to the hilt. However, when facing pressure to resolve urgent issues, it can be tricky because they’ve not seen these things in the flesh. They've not been able to gain the actual experience they need to diagnose the problem and formulate a solution.Simon Lodge, Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprentice
But it works both ways. Simon is the first to admit that he came from the opposite position. He had 15 years of practical experience gained on the job but no formal training. His apprenticeship has given him the academic grounding to complement his professional experience.
There are things that I’ve always known to do but not known why. So the degree apprenticeship has given me a deeper understanding of my professional practice. Sometimes I’m reading a module text and get that lightbulb moment of ‘Ah, that’s why I do this thing at work that I’ve always done but never really understood why!Simon Lodge, Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprentice
As well as juggling family life, a busy career and study, Simon has also had to manage a long-term health condition, epilepsy. Simon comments that:
“The warmth, kindness and understanding the OU and Pearson have shown to me have provided me with the impetus I needed to keep going.”
Recently, global events have presented Simon with additional challenges at work, as he is responsible for the systems that support remote working at Pearson.
“Before COVID, we had about 2,000 home workers. But in that first week of lockdown, we had 27,000 people needing to work from home. And all of the remote access systems and VPN that I’m responsible for were really creaking under the increased pressure. We couldn’t buy new kit because demand quickly outstripped supply, so I spent the first six months of last year running around just trying to keep everything up and running. Thankfully the worst of that is over now.”
Despite the challenges of apprentice life – not to mention navigating a global pandemic – Simon remains a passionate advocate for degree apprenticeships.
“I’ve had colleagues come up and ask me what it’s all about and they’re looking to sign up next year now. I would wholeheartedly recommend an apprenticeship to anybody considering it. I’d just say make sure you have the time to do justice to the process. It is a significant investment in time but the rewards more than outweigh the challenges.”