'It's never too late to make a change'

Unite member and apprentice Stacey Sowden is forging her own path in construction

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During National Apprentices Week this week, many people may be wondering if an apprenticeship in skilled trades is right for them. Maybe they think if they aren’t under 25 — or if they aren’t men — they shouldn’t bother.

But Unite member and apprentice Stacey Sowden, 33, has shown that you can’t put apprentices in any box – with a bit of hard work and determination, anyone can succeed.

Before starting her apprenticeship last year in Steel Fixing at Hinckley Point C, Europe’s largest construction site, Stacey had a full-fledged career in warehousing.

Several years ago, she completed a Level 3 NVQ in Management, which helped propel her into the role of warehouse manager for a catering suppliers firm. She’d also done some warehousing work at Legoland as well as a bit of football coaching, all while also embracing her new role as mum.

But after seven years in warehousing, Stacey wanted to try her talents elsewhere.

“I started to fall out of love with warehousing,” she told UniteLIVE. “I couldn’t go any further. I was managing and I just wasn’t very happy. A friend I went to school with who works at Hinckley Point C shared an article about females in construction. I sent him a message asking if he thought it was something I could be good at. And he said, ‘I think you’d be brilliant’. He sent me the link, and I applied for it, and here I am!”

Stacey is due to finish her Level 2 NVQ and Diploma Steel Fixing apprenticeship later this year and said she couldn’t be happier with all the skills she’s learned so far.  

“There’s so much opportunity to learn,” Stacey explained. “You don’t just learn the trade, you get your working at heights ticket, your manual handling ticket, you get your CSCS card, you’re trained to use power tools and so much more. It’s more than what meets the eye. There’s always more that you can progress to if you want.

“I’m hopefully going to do both first aid and mental health first aid as well. So it’s not just the fact that you’ll get an NVQ in Steel Fixing at the end of the apprenticeship. There’s a lot of life skills you can get from it too. Obviously first aid is one, but even something like manual handling – if you’re moving house, knowing how to pick something up correctly is really valuable. These are all transferable skills.”

Stacey’s hard work and can-do attitude has earned her serious accolades after she won the Hinckley Point C (HPC) Rising Star award in December.

“I was quite emotional at the acceptance ceremony,” she said. “I nearly broke down just because I was so shocked to win it. I got nominated by a guy on my platform and then I got invited to the ceremony at Hinckley Campus. I was fortunate enough to win the award and since then I’ve received quite a lot of recognition. It’s just really nice to know that even though I’m slightly older than the average apprentice, I can still work hard and that hard work pays off.”

Stacey urges others who might be thinking of taking on an apprenticeship to not let stereotypes hold them back.

“Don’t be put out by the stereotype that construction is for men,” she said. “Yes, stereotypically it is more of a male environment but if you work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, you can achieve the same standards. I think that’s an important message for any female who wants to get into construction.

“Sometimes you may even have to work a little bit harder than the men. Other times, your knowledge and your expertise can help someone else out. But the opportunities are there – no matter who you are. And they are all perfectly achievable.”

Stacey also encourages those who might be a bit older than the average apprentice to go for it.

“It’s never too late,” she noted. “That’s what I said to myself – it’s never too late to make a change. But you can’t expect that change to be handed out to you on a platter. You’ve got to go out and get it, and you’ve got to work hard, whether that’s in construction or accounting or any other field.

“Obviously the older you are the harder it is to get up in the morning and things like that. You might have children or other obligations that you might not have had when you were younger,” Stacey, a mother of five-year-old twins and a nine-year-old daughter, added. “But you find a way to make it work — especially if that is your choice, if it’s something you’re passionate about doing.”

As ever, Stacey continues to set her sights high, hoping to qualify and get her white hat this year. Looking to the future, she also wants become a supervisor in her trade.

“At present, there are no female supervisors who work in the trade. There are women supervisors in other areas, but there are no women out on the ground. That would be my target – to be one of the first female supervisors, if not the first ever female supervisor, actually out on the tools in a skilled trade environment.”

Whatever their goals may be, Stacey urges would-be apprentices to join a union.

“That sense of togetherness is so important,” she said. “If you have a problem, there’s always somebody who’s got your back. It’s just nice to know that you’ve got a support network if there are questions that you don’t have the answers to; if there are situations where you’ll need some assistance, say if your pay is not right. If you’re in the union, all of us are together fighting for the same thing. You’re never on your own.”

By Hajera Blagg

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