Higher Level Apprenticeship is the Road to Success for James

0 min read

10 June 2024

James Blakely sits at a computer desk in a SERC classroom where he studies once a week as part of his higher-level apprenticeship

As a higher-level apprentice (HLA) site engineer with John McQuillan Contracts, 20-year-old James Blakeley manages squads of skilled operators, measures sites, and monitors the performance of machinery on road and footpath projects. He is confident that this role has put him on the right route to achieve success in his chosen career of civil engineering.  

James, who is from Dunadry in County Antrim, took his first step onto this pathway when he enrolled on a Level 3 National Extended Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment at SERC Lisburn Campus, progressing to a Level 3 National Extended Diploma in Civil Engineering. Now, as an HLA, he spends four days a week in the workplace and one day in SERC.  

He will end this year with the equivalent of a foundation degree and plans to achieve a full degree through part-time study with the support of an employer.  

James says this wasn’t always the plan: 

“My original plan was to do engineering and then go into the Royal Navy, but the Level 3 course introduced me to other options and my ambition changed. It’s shown me so much of what is possible; for example, I never thought I’d be good enough at maths to do civil engineering, but it turns out that’s not the case:  I even ended up taking Further Maths A-Level – and succeeding! - as my SERC tutor encouraged it. That has also helped me on the path to a degree course. 

“I had thought of continuing at SERC with a Higher National Certificate after the Level 3 study, but then my tutor, Kim McCoy Johnston, let me know that McQuillan’s were looking for a Higher-Level Apprentice and suggested I apply.   Two years down the line and I have a place at Ulster University for September.  It’s part-time study, alongside employment, so it’ll be five years in all to get the degree, but I don’t feel as if I’ve been held back as I am learning so much and earning at the same time.”   

James chose SERC after GCSEs as he knew the school environment wasn’t ideal for him, even though he wasn’t sure at the time how to unlock the future he wanted. He explains, “I went to an open evening at SERC where I met the tutor, Kim; at the time I was very keen on construction but open to other options and we discussed what I like doing and what I want to end up doing, and Kim identified the best course for me.   “I started here when I was 17. When I first arrived, I was nervous and I had no idea what to expect, but from the very first day I found it very relaxed – for me personally it’s a better environment for learning and I still get things done. 

"At SERC I have loved getting to work on good computers, and the library, or Learning Resource Centre, was very useful – I used to come in on days I didn’t have classes to get on with stuff.  The teaching staff are industry experienced and it’s obvious they know the world they are teaching us about. At SERC you can come in with anything from work or outside college and your tutor will be able to help and relate it to their own experience.  My various teachers have backgrounds in architectural design, health and safety, civil engineering and so on.”  

James says the vocational route is definitely worth considering and urges other young people to explore all their options:  

"When I was looking for the next step after GCSEs, the message from school was very much ‘stay on for sixth form and go to university’, but I think the college route is better – it does open up opportunities. If I had stayed on for A-levels I wouldn’t now be doing an HLA at McQuillan’s – but here I am, getting to where I want to be. You leave university and employers want experience, but A-Levels and university alone won’t give you that. I already have two years’ experience behind me as well as qualifications, and I have also proved I am employable and stick at a job. I would recommend an HLA if it’s available in what you want to do.”

Explore the range of HLA opportunities at SERC here