Blazing a trail: a woman’s journey from apprentice to director

In the lead up to International’s Women’s Day and National Apprenticeship Week, we take a look at one woman’s impressive career journey…starting with an apprenticeship.

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“I had a male colleague who was in a similar role once say to me: ‘You shouldn’t be on the same salary as me because you’re a woman.’"

‘Blaze a Trail’ is the theme for National Apprenticeship Week (#NAW2019), which runs from 4-8 March, encouraging people of all ages and backgrounds to choose an apprenticeship as a pathway to a great career. The week will showcase the high-quality apprenticeship opportunities available across a wide variety of sectors.

Melanie Nicholson started her career as a dental nursing apprentice. Having risen to become Seetec’s Executive Director for Excellence, Apprenticeships and Skills, she is blazing a trail for women in leadership.

Melanie Nicholson was 18 when she signed up for an apprenticeship in her chosen career of surgical dental nursing at Warrington Hospital, where she worked in the Maximillia facial unit. The skills she gained during three years working in surgical environments - and the distinction she was awarded on completion of her apprenticeship programme - immediately led to a job offer to teach the next generation of dental nurse apprentices.

That was the start of a rapid rise to director in the skills industry. By the age of 25 she was a senior manager and became a director at 31.

Melanie said: “I absolutely loved my apprenticeship from day one. My friends who had gone to college had the same knowledge and qualifications at the end of three years’ study, but they did not have the same hands-on experience of working in a surgical or theatre environment. In addition to all of this experience I was gaining, I was also being paid a salary.”

“I asked myself why I can’t have it all. It was very difficult at times, trying to juggle being the best mum I could be while balancing my career and the expectations from both my team and my employer,” Melanie recalls. “I was the only woman in the senior team and regularly the only woman in Directors’ meetings. My male colleagues would regularly go to the pub after work to bond and talk shop and I would head off home to be with my son and relieve the childminder."

Melanie progressed from tutoring and assessing dental nurse apprentices to quality-assurance roles and then onto national management roles with large training providers. She was then promoted to Director roles, heading up training and apprenticeships divisions within large corporate employers, most of which were in quite male-dominated sectors.

When in one management role early in her career, Melanie admits she did encounter sexism. “I had a male colleague who was in a similar role once say to me: ‘You shouldn’t be on the same salary as me because you’re a woman.’

“I calmly pointed out to him that my performance and my team’s performance were continually higher than his, which meant that maybe I was better at the job than he was and I should probably be paid more regardless of whether I was a woman or not.”

The challenge she faced when she became a director for a large corporate with a national remit was compounded by the fact she was also a single mum, relying on her family and support network when her job frequently involved travel and overnight stays away from home.

“I asked myself why I can’t have it all. It was very difficult at times, trying to juggle being the best mum I could be while balancing my career and the expectations from both my team and my employer,” Melanie recalls. “I was the only woman in the senior team and regularly the only woman in Directors’ meetings. My male colleagues would regularly go to the pub after work to bond and talk shop and I would head off home to be with my son and relieve the childminder.

“Although at home with my son was where I wanted to be after work, it did make me feel slightly alienated from my peers. I was fortunate to have an extremely supportive Managing Director who taught me that success is earned and there is no such thing as shortcuts, leadership is not a person or position, it’s a relationship built on trust and respect that leads to a shared vision.”

During her career Melanie has trained, quality-assured or managed the training for tens of thousands of apprentices. Her son, now 23, also chose the apprenticeship route, signing up for an IT apprenticeship and progressing into a role within the training sector.

“When I was at school, our career guidance was limited and pushed the girls towards apprenticeships in hair and beauty and the boys into construction,” Melanie said. “Those who wanted to go on to university saw apprenticeships as a lower class of education.

“Thankfully people’s attitudes towards apprenticeships have become much more positive, especially with the recent reforms. Apprenticeships have been aligned to specific job roles with an emphasis on the skills, knowledge and behaviours required to do the job.

“Apprenticeships are now seen as a serious career path, especially with the introduction of degree apprenticeships which enable individuals to progress their learning while being employed.”

Melanie joined national employment and skills specialist Seetec two years ago, with national responsibility for apprenticeships and skills across the Group.

She said: “When I am working with young women, I really encourage them to think about being independent, what career they want for themselves, what they will enjoy doing.

“My message is don’t get up every morning just to do a job, get up to do something you really enjoy. Be yourself, believe in yourself and aspire to be the best you can be.”

For more information about apprenticeship opportunities, contact apprenticeships@seetec.co.uk, telephone 01702 208270.

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