Watching her dad build a playhouse in the garden of the family home at age three, armed with a handful of plastic tools ready to join in – Rebecca Henry knew even back then that creating something useful for others was all she wanted to do.
Now, aged 24, she’s fulfilling those early ambitions – ignited by her dad Simon, a joiner, and grandfather John, a tool maker – after completing an Engineering Degree Apprenticeship at the University of Sunderland this year, supported in partnership with her employer Tharsus.
Rebecca began her apprenticeship after completing her A-levels, as a technical officer six-years ago in the manufacturing division of Northumberland-based Tharsus, now one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of commercial robots.
Recognising her passion for the engineering industry, Tharsus wanted to support Rebecca’s ambitions to further strengthen her knowledge and experience of the sector and teamed up with the University of Sunderland, which has a successful track-record in developing highly-skilled employees through its Engineering Degree Apprenticeship.
As one of a new generation of female engineers, Rebecca is now hoping her journey will inspire other young women to take the leap into what was a traditionally male-dominated industry, which she believes can now offer so much as a career.
“People just assumed engineering was only for men, and it was unheard of that women could progress in this industry,” says Rebecca, “But that’s changing now.
“The stigma is lifting and more women are choosing a pathway through engineering and STEM, and are excelling.”
She adds: “At Tharsus, year on year, since I began, more female engineers are now coming through, it’s definitely moving in the right direction and we are starting to really make our mark in engineering!”
Growing up watching Formula 1 Racing on television alongside her family, Rebecca, from Newcastle, cites Bernadette Collins, a senior strategy engineer for Racing Point Force India Formula One Team, as a major inspiration.
Collins’ start at McLaren Racing laid the foundation for her future in motorsports and she has since been a substantial role model for young girls wanting to work in the profession.
“Bernadette has worked with great drivers over the years such as Jensen Button, and she made me realise that women can achieve remarkable things in this industry.”
“My dad and grandad have also been a huge influence on me. I remember standing in the garden with my plastic tools trying to help my dad build that playhouse, it ignited that desire to pursue a career where I can build things which solve issues for people.”
“At Tharsus I’m now solving those issues for customers and designing products that will help them in their respective markets.
“I’m in my dream job and I love it. I come to work every day and want to make improvements to the way we make products, improve efficiencies and effectiveness, increasing productivity, it’s what I really enjoy.”
Rebecca’s determination to equip herself with the tools to continue developing her skills in engineering was supported through the University’s Engineering Degree Apprenticeship programme that she joined in 2019.
The programme consists of three pathways, Manufacturing Engineering Practice, Electronic and Electrical Engineering Practice and Design Engineering Practice.
Rebecca chose the Manufacturing Engineering Practice pathway as its suited the work she was doing at Tharsus, developing improvements on the production line.
Rebecca explained: “We are looking at how we can make the line more efficient and effective; what can we do to make life easier for the production operators when they’re building a new product?
“The improvements could be the way in which the line is laid out, the product is delivered, the timing they have available, there’s a whole remit to consider.”
Apprentices like Rebecca are employees who spend most of their time in the workplace, supported by dedicated study time with the University.
Learning while working, then applying that learning back into the workplace.
Rebecca spent every Friday on the University’s Sir Tom Cowie Campus, at St Peter’s, on Sunderland’s riverside.
The University is currently working with more than 60 employers, including Tharsus across the region, delivering successful higher and degree apprenticeship programmes.
“I cannot recommend a degree apprenticeship enough,” says Rebecca. “It’s given me the tools I need to apply the theoretical knowledge I learn at university into the workplace, and I’ve seen the benefits immediately.
“I’m a much more well-rounded individual – it makes me feel good. The work I am doing is not only helping myself but helping the business as a whole.”
Rebecca also says she was able to draw on a wealth of real-life experiences and ideas from other apprentices, hailing from a wide range of backgrounds.
“The cohort for our class, which included other women, was great, they all made learning a lot easier, especially during our group work. It allowed us to develop a strong working relationship within the team and we are all still in contact.”
David Knapton, Principal Lecturer in Engineering, highlights some of the benefits of choosing an apprenticeship: “The degree apprenticeship route is an attractive and accessible way to study for both apprentices and employers.
“Peer supported learning allows an opportunity for apprentices to learn across a network of companies and broaden their experience in ways not possible with solely on the job training.
“Apprentices learn in a vibrant learning environment supported by academic staff with significant industrial experience themselves.”
David adds: “Blending work with a degree level qualification really helps to develop and recruit a diverse workforce.
“Apprentices such as Rebecca and many of her peers are able to competently and confidently take on more responsibility in the workplace during their period of study.”
Gordon Ramsey, Head of Manufacturing at Tharsus, said: “Rebecca has demonstrated a positive work ethic, initiative, maturity and resilience throughout her apprenticeship.
“Her abilities have enabled her to play a significant role in developing manufacturing cells and in improving Quality, process and efficiency in each case.
“Furthermore, her lead role in carrying out the Competence training programme within the Manufacturing team has brought about significant change in the confidence, ability and drive of her colleagues.
“It has proven so successful that the plan is to now cascade this throughout the Tharsus group.
“A testament to Rebecca’s ability as well as her profile within the business.
“It’s both clear, and disappointing that the gender balance within engineering is far from being addressed at the rate it should be.
As a business we are attempting to change this and have great examples of female engineers who perform at a high level within their role, but additionally bring balance and an alternative view to the team perspective.
“The aim of engineers is to develop solutions to satisfy the demands of society: happiness, comfort and mobility, how can any business believe they can achieve this in the absence of a workforce representative of society?”
So, what is the best advice Rebecca has been given to help her on her journey to success?
“At Tharsus, we use the ethos of ‘best idea wins’, this really helps in group forums where we are trying to problem solve,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter who comes up with the best solution, it could be the apprentice or company director – we will all roll with it to ensure success.”
And what is her own advice to new apprentices entering the engineering industry?
“Do not to be afraid of shouting up about an idea, because sometimes a fresh pair of eyes on a situation really helps. We have had so much success following this ethos.”
How about the future?
Rebecca says: “I am really enjoying the role I have currently and so proud I have achieved a degree while continuing to work.
“The balance between the two really suited me. My boss always asks me what I want to do next – perhaps a Post Graduate Engineer Apprenticeship at Sunderland could be on the cards, we’ll just have to see.”