From catering to the lab: how my apprenticeship changed my life

Chantelle Lawrence explains how becoming an apprentice at 27 gave her the chance to pursue a STEM career

I was always fascinated by the sciences at school, but as I was a ‘C’ student I never thought I would be able to pursue a career related to it. I left school at 16 with 10 GCSEs. I then picked the wrong options for sixth form (food tech, drama and psychology), and decided it just wasn’t for me. At 18, I applied for a job at the National STEM Learning Centre, and worked as a member of the catering team. 

After six years in conference catering, I felt that I needed a career change but was unsure of what I wanted to do. At one of the Christmas parties, I had the chance to chat with Yvonne Baker, CEO of STEM Learning, and the head of HR, so I asked them about the options available. They suggested I speak to the heads of the departments within the centre and arrange some work experience to figure out which roles I was interested in.

I ended up joining the lab team for a few hours each week, and it soon became clear that many of the skills I’d gained in catering were also useful in the laboratory, such as effective communication and time management. Later that year, a position opened for an apprentice laboratory technician, which I managed to get – largely down to my work experience with the lab team.

An apprenticeship is a great opportunity as it allows you to get hands-on experience without having to sit exams and feel that you are at the bottom of the class. I started to doubt myself when I was taking the mock GCSEs at school as I was getting Es, despite doing well in coursework. I really struggled with being a ‘middle’ student and wasn’t given any extra help when I was younger, which is why I am so thankful for the encouragement I’ve received at STEM Learning. I’ve had varied opportunities, such as writing content for the official website, and have gotten positive feedback on my writing skills. This isn’t a skill that you need to be a lab technician but it has built my confidence.

I was quite conscious of being older than a ‘traditional’ apprentice at 27, but I felt that it gave me the drive to succeed to pay back the faith the company was showing in me. I was going for distinctions, while younger apprentices may have been happy to cruise along as this was just another learning experience for them.

However, older apprentices who have been away from education need to be given time to learn how to learn again; STEM Learning was great at letting me take time to do this. Learning is demanding, especially after time away from it. On the flipside, I think there is a resilience about older apprentices that comes with maturity. I already had customer service skills, so I was already able to communicate and respond in an adult manner.

I’m proud to be a woman in STEM, and feel I have been fully supported and encouraged throughout my time within the lab team. STEM Learning is all about promoting professional development to get people into STEM, and it really helps to breakdown the preconceptions surrounding women in the sciences.

My apprenticeship has opened many doors and provided me with new possibilities. Part of my job role is to train to become a facilitator, and begin presenting on some of the in-house courses we run at the centre, aimed specifically at technicians.

My apprenticeship will be completed sometime this year, which will allow me to start enquiring about further education. I could seek out training to become a senior laboratory technician, apply for a job in industry, or look into the qualifications required to get involved in scientific research. I hope to stay with STEM Learning for a long time, but now I know that the world is open to me in ways it never was before. I have my apprenticeship to thank for that.

Chantelle Lawrence (pictured) is a trainee lab technician at STEM Learning and recently spoke about her experience at an event hosted by The 5% Club