Apprenticeships give weight to STEM careers

Perdi Williams, Research Scientist (and former apprentice) at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) explains why an apprenticeship was the right route for her journey into science and engineering

I’m still getting to grips with science, literally. I’m practically-minded and learn best when I’m applying myself to solve a problem. Learning from a book, without any practical context to the information, has always been difficult to me. But I do love science.

When I finished my GCSEs at 16, wanting to pursue my interest in engineering, I was presented with the so-called ‘conventional’ path of A-levels, university, and so on. It was just not for me. So, I started to look around for an alternative, one where I could put my skills into practice. An apprenticeship sounded like a good idea: learning while working, and understanding the science while solving real-world problems.

I started as an apprentice at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK’s National Measurement Institute, in 2015. Since then, I’ve worked in the mass group – NPL’s research group dedicated to mass measurements. We have played a pivotal role in the redefinition of the kilogram, from a metal artefact to one based on the Planck constant, which came into place earlier this year.

The redefinition will have a massive impact on science and society, laying the foundations for accurate mass measurements in the future, but my work has been more varied than just this. On one day I’ll be in the lab, and on another, I’ll be in a school teaching kids about the importance of measurement, and there is always the opportunity to be creative, to solve problems.

Our work will now cover the maintenance of the mass scale and the traceability chain, and my personal focus will be on the long-term stability of the kilogram. Although we will no longer be using a metal artefact as a mass standard, this will still be used in comparison and will continue to make the supply chain robust.

In 2017, I completed my apprenticeship, graduating with a level 3 B-Tec in applied science, and a Level 3 NVQ in LATA (laboratory associated technical activities). Alongside these qualifications, working in a big organisation has helped me develop further skills, like confidence and interpersonal and presentation skills (I had the opportunity to talk at last year’s New Scientist Live on the redefinition of the kilogram).

In celebration of International Women in Engineering Day 2019 (INWED), I was named as one of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES)’s Top 50 Women in Engineering for 2019, in the apprentices’ category. It makes such a difference to see scientists and engineers from diverse backgrounds who are fantastic role models for the next generation, and it is an honour to be recognised personally.

In just a few years, I’ve gone from being an apprentice to a Research Scientist who has played an important role in redefining the kilogram. There are so many different routes into a career in science and engineering, and an apprenticeship is the one that worked for me. I’m proud to be able to highlight one of these paths, and, hopefully, my experience will help someone else find the best route for them. Go to open days, have a look around science labs (they’re so much more than just Bunsen burners!) and try as much as you can.

Perdi Williams is a Research Scientist at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL)