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Science apprenticeships – the right formula

Science Apprenticeships

If chemistry or physics is your thing, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that you may want to pursue a career in your favourite area of study. Check out our research into science apprenticeships in two different disciplines.

Post-GCSE decisions

If you’ve nearly finished your GCSEs and you know that you want to carry on studying the sciences, the time will soon come to make some big, scary decisions… Do you stay on in the sixth form to study A-Levels and then go to university? Do you go to college to get an FE qualification? Do you look for a job? Don’t worry! There is something else you can consider if you don’t fancy these options…

We spoke to a few lucky teenagers who were not only gaining valuable qualifications through being on science apprenticeships but also gaining the valuable work experience needed to impress potential employers. 

Science apprenticeships at the LGC

At the LGC (Laboratory of the Government Chemist) science apprentices are working on chemical, biochemical and DNA-based forensic analysis, on a scheme run in conjunction with the CSR training group.

By doing a science apprenticeship at the LGC, young people aged from 16 to 19 gain valuable experience in toxicology, drug analysis, analysing DNA and forensically testing questionable documents.  One LGC apprentice, Abby, specialises in studying toxicology. She did AS Levels but after a year she decided that A-levels weren’t right for her and she dropped out of school. She told me, “I was looking around for science apprenticeships and this one came up. I always liked science so I thought this would be perfect!”

What the LGC science apprentices do

Abby and her fellow science apprentices started on their 18-month schemes in October 2014. Apprenticeships in the UK usually run for12 months, but it was LGC’s decision to extend their science apprenticeships scheme by six months, to give apprentices more experience. Abby is thinking about going to university when she finishes her science apprenticeship – doing the scheme counts as 240 UCAS tariff points.

Ashley is specialising in drug analysis and was surprised that on the LGC science apprenticeship, he remembered things he’d studied at A-Level but on the scheme he actually learns the theory of analysis as well as the practical stuff.  The drug analysis team sometimes receive evidence from customs officers at Gatwick Airport, which the apprentices have to analyse.  The LGC is one of the biggest drug testing labs in the country and Joe, another science apprentice specialising in toxicology, said that sometimes they receive clothing from the police for the identification of poisons in homicide cases. Because the apprentices deal with current crimes, Ashley added, “When we look at real case files, we have to think, ‘these are actual people’.”

Science apprenticeships at NPL

Just around the corner from the LGC labs, the NPL (National Physical Laboratory) is home to more young people on science apprenticeships. The NPL is the UK’s National Measurement Institute and it exists in order to test and set the standard measurements for all seven SI units: meter for length, kilogram for mass, second for time, ampere (amp) for electric current, kelvin for temperature, candela for luminous intensity and mole for the amount of substance. 

Rob Green, who looks after the NPL science apprentices, explained that the laboratory is a very prestigious organisation for measurement and calibration. One thing NPL offers, which universities can’t provide, is its extraordinary range of specialist equipment which the apprentices use to gain valuable practical experience.  “This science apprenticeship scheme gives the apprentices a great head-start and work experience, compared with other qualifications.” said Rob. 

All the young people on the scheme each discovered the LGC and NPL science apprenticeships through different sources, some whilst looking on websites for alternatives to university and others saw the opportunity on posters in school. Others heard about the science apprenticeships from friends or relatives. The selection process for each new intake is done by the apprentices, who set up tasks for the applicants to complete.  On the NPL science apprenticeship, individuals act as STEM ambassadors, as well as taking part in outreach programmes promoting NPL science apprenticeships in schools and colleges.

Qualifications, employment and wages

At the end of the scheme, everyone on the science apprenticeship scheme has the chance to apply for a full time job with NPL and they are given fixed term contracts if they pass the interview stage.  Completing LGC or NPL science apprenticeships entitles the apprentices to put the letters, RSciTech (endorsed by the Royal Society of Chemists) after their names, which informs employers of the level of their knowledge and skill.  This qualification is highly regarded because it is proof of in-depth academic and practical knowledge of a subject. The apprentices also receive a Level 3 BTEC in Forensic Science and a Level 3 Diploma in Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities.

Whilst on the LGC and NPL science apprenticeships, trainees are paid £2.73 an hour to start with but this increases to the national minimum wage after 12 months. Most of the apprentices live at home, near to the LGC and NPL sites but one travels for two-and-a-half hours every day from her home and back again. She said she doesn’t mind at all because she was really enjoying her apprenticeship and appreciated how lucky she was to be doing something so interesting and exciting. Go to our dedicated apprenticeships page for more information on apprenticeship schemes.

About Lynette Daly

Lynette is the publishing editor of Moving On magazine. Moving On is devoted to helping young people make good choices for their future – education, qualifications and careers. Moving On really wants to motivate you! Our articles cover a range of topics to inspire and give ideas. Our magazines are delivered free to all schools, colleges and sixth forms in England and is also available online.

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