From Apprentice to Operations Manager: Taking the technical route
Rachael was recently made an Honorary Fellow by the IOP for her contributions to the development of operational particle accelerators and accelerator test facilities. She tells us how leaving school at 16 to become an apprentice led her to where she is today.
"When you’re working on something that could help thousands of people, that gives you a bit of a buzz."
First name: Rachael | Job title: Radiation Test Facilities Operations Manager | Organisation: Science and Technology Facilities Council | Qualifications: Higher National Diploma, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Warrington Collegiate
Where did your career begin?
I started off as an electronics apprentice. I'd taken a bit of an interest in electronics, but it wasn't really something we did at school. Then there was a careers evening and someone from Daresbury [Laboratory] was there. They offered me work experience, so I went for a week in the holidays, enjoyed it and then applied for the apprenticeship. I left school straight after my GCSEs at 16.
What was the apprenticeship like?
It was difficult at points, if I'm perfectly honest! It was a long time ago and there weren't many female engineers around at the time, so it was a little tough at times. But I learnt a lot. I failed at some things, but then I picked myself up, carried on and did it all again.
The apprenticeship was for four years, but towards the end, things started to change on the work front – there was no longer a job for me in the electronics workshop. So I moved and I went to the electrical department. I did electrical engineering and worked on the synchrotron radiation source beam lines, assisting the users who were coming in with their kit with what they needed to get working.
Where did you go from there?
I spent a few years doing that and then a job come up, a promotion, at the cryogenics plant. The group leader came down and talked to all of the electrical technicians and explained that anyone could apply for it, so I did – and I got it.
I went from being an "on the tools" kind of electrical technician – doing lots of installations – to being responsible for the operation of a helium cryogenics plant, working at 4 kelvin, which is about -269 degree C. I had to learn about cryogenics, how things cool down, how liquefiers work – things I'd never dealt with before. So that was interesting.
What were you working on?
We had a user facility called the SRS – the first Synchrotron Radiation Source in the world. People would come in from universities and they would do experiments on a multitude of things, from breast cancer and HIV to the movement of the earth's crust to predict earthquakes. We also did some work with Cadbury's on how to make chocolate taste nice!
What does your job now involve day-to-day?
My job today is mostly to do with making sure the facilities are operational. We have five accelerator areas with different machines in each. My role is to make sure they all work and that any work is done safely. There's still a cryogenics plant on site and so I have some input into that, and I also work with close temperature stabilisation systems. But my main role is the overall operations of the radiation facilities, and making sure that people can get in and do the experiments they want to do.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The variety – it's what keeps you going. Every day isn’t the same. The other thing is that sometimes there might be a company building a facility on site that could change the future of proton therapy in cancer treatment, for example. When you’re working on something that could help thousands of people, that gives you a bit of a buzz.
What is a technician?
I consider a technician anybody who has input into a system, usually with some hands-on part to their job. It doesn't have to be someone who sits in a workshop and machines all day, but I consider technicians to be anybody who has technical input and who uses their hands to facilitate that technical input. I still count myself as a technician.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming a technician?
I would recommend an apprenticeship. You get your qualifications, practical experience – and you earn while you learn. We also find a lot now that people are upskilling after their apprenticeship, using the Apprenticeship Levy to do a degree, so doing an apprenticeship isn't a bar to doing a degree – you just don't always need it, as I haven't. Sometimes your experience and attitude are worth more than qualifications.