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Persistence pays off for determined Degree Apprentice Frances

Frances Mahony works as a Software Engineer for Shell Energy Retail and is a Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprentice at The Open University. As a new recipient of Degree Apprenticeship Certificate of Merit from Tech Industry Gold, we caught up with Frances to talk about aspirations, opportunities and access to Higher Education via her Degree Apprenticeship.

Career direction 

Like many young people, Frances wasn’t made aware of Degree Apprenticeships when she was considering her future options. Shepherded towards the more traditional university route, she started a programme in Environmental Science before realising it wasn’t for her.

‘I probably would have gone for an apprenticeship after school, but it wasn’t mentioned like the university route. Even though it was an option, it wasn’t put forward as ‘this is a really good thing you can do’. I think university was what everyone did and was what the school expected you to do.’

Once she was at university, Frances felt uninspired by the lack of career direction. ‘It just felt like learning for the sake of learning,’ she says, ‘with no end goal in sight’. After a year, she withdrew from her course and took a call centre job with First Utility, which later became Shell Energy Retail. 

It just makes sense

When Frances discovered Degree Apprenticeships, she was immediately attracted to the idea. 

‘It just makes sense - having the two sides of it together,’ she enthuses. 

Convinced that an apprenticeship was the right path for her – and keen to follow her passion for tech – Frances asked Shell Energy Retail if there were any apprenticeship opportunities she could apply for.  

‘When I first started on the phones, I asked if they did any software engineering apprenticeships, because that was something I really wanted to do. But they didn’t do them at the time. 18 months later, they introduced them, so I applied and got it. It was my dream job, offered at just the right time’.

Offered her ‘dream job’, Frances leapt at the opportunity to be part of Shell Energy Retail’s new cohort of degree apprentices. 

A supportive employer

Shell Energy Retail was a keen, flexible and supportive employer that recognised apprentices as a valuable asset to the company.

Frances says she benefitted from line managers who engaged with the apprenticeship process. Whilst they encouraged lots of hands-on practical work, they also made sure she had time to commit to her university work.

‘There were five apprentices in my year. It’s gone up to 10 now. And we were all assigned to a principal – the higher up technical leads. Mine was fantastic. He had a plan for what I was going to do and how I’d progress. He helped me to get involved and engaged with work groups. But there was still the space to do the university work as well’. 

Applying learning at work

One of the benefits of an apprenticeship – for both learners and employers – is that apprentices apply their new knowledge immediately in the workplace. Frances is a huge advocate for this method of professional learning. 

There’s a back-and-forth of learning things and applying them. Sometimes I work on a project and then learn about it at university. That consolidates what I’ve been working on, like “Oh, that’s why we did it like that! Now it makes sense!” It’s great seeing both sides to it – the theory and the application.

Frances Mahony, Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprentice

With this style of learning, employers benefit immediately, as apprentices are eager to bring their new knowledge and confidence to bear on their employment. This means the business can benefit from enhanced skills and expertise in their team straight away. 

This model of staff development also means apprentices can be deployed quickly, delivering work at a higher level of trust and responsibility than other new starters. This was certainly the case with Frances – something which helped her feel engaged and valued from day one.

‘When we first started, we had a project that we did for most of the first year, coding an internal app for Shell Energy Retail. We got a lot of help with from other developers but it was us doing the coding.’

Between her supportive employer, interesting projects, and practical learning, Frances knew straight away that she’d finally found the right qualification route for her. 

The benefits of distance learning

One of the distinctive features of the OU’s approach is its commitment to distance learning – so we asked Frances how she thought that worked for apprentices like her? 

Having sampled ‘bricks and mortar’ university life, she’s embraced the alternative and loves the balance and flexibility it offers.

I definitely prefer studying remotely because it's flexible around your daily life. You can choose when you study and choose when you're doing it, rather than having to fit into a ‘nine to five’. Shell Energy Retail has been really flexible. And The Open University has been really supportive too. If I’ve ever needed help or clarification, they’ve been really quick to respond.

Frances Mahony, Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprentice

As a wheelchair user, remote learning removed a significant hurdle to participation, as Frances didn’t have to worry about access to campus. This hasn’t just opened up opportunities for Frances but for her employer too, who has access to a wider talent pool thanks to the OU’s accessible-by-design delivery methods. 

Frances is complementary about The OU’s support and how it has helped her thrive in her studies and employment:

‘In particular, I especially appreciate the support I have received from my practice tutor, Andy Hollyhead. There have been times where I have felt quite overwhelmed with the workload and balancing my time and he has been incredibly helpful and supportive.’

She also adds she very much feels part of a community:

‘I’ve engaged most with the other apprentices on the same course – it makes sense – we’re working on projects together and they’re in the same place. There are plenty of ways to connect to other apprenticeship students – there are WhatsApp groups for example – so you don’t feel isolated.’

Inspiring others

Her success and enthusiasm for apprenticeships have attracted interest from her peers, who have started to look at apprenticeships more closely. But Frances still worries that people aren’t aware of the great opportunities they present.

I think a lot of my friends would have benefited from this kind of learning. But I think there’s still a misconception about apprenticeships, especially the higher-level apprenticeships. You get so much more from them than people realise. You get so much more real-world experience. That’s really valuable, especially in a practical field like tech.

Frances Mahony, Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprentice

As a woman in tech, Frances recognises she is still in the minority, though the gender balance is changing. ‘I do notice things are changing and it would definitely be nice to see and inspire more women to undertake a career in tech,’ she says. 

Future plans

She’s confident that her apprenticeship will give her the edge in the tech jobs market, although she doesn’t have any firm career plans just yet.

‘I’m just focusing on learning as much as I can. I’ll do as much as I can and take every opportunity I have. Then I’ll see what my level of knowledge is – and what my interests are - at the end. When my next career step becomes clear, I know I’ll have that work experience and professional network to draw on.’

Asked what advice she’d give to someone who is intimidated by the idea of jumping straight into the world of work, she says:

‘Remember, you don't need to already know how to code in a certain language before you start. It's more important to have the drive and determination to want to do it. I wish I’d known about it sooner, because for me, it really is the dream opportunity.’



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