Vocational qualifications and routes into engineering careers

How can you get into an engineering career as a school leaver without a degree? A look at useful training, employers and routes in. Power your future...

What does ‘vocational’ mean?

It’s good to begin at the beginning. If you’re not sure, the word ‘vocational’ is used to talk about skills and qualifications that can be put directly to use when you’re working. Vocational qualifications feature practical hands-on knowledge - where you get to experience what you’re learning - as well as academic knowledge – which is what you pick up in the classroom.

How can vocational qualifications help you get into an engineering career without a degree?

There are so many branches to engineering. A degree has traditionally been the route in, but what if you’ve decided not to go to university but still yearn to become an engineer? There should be an alternative route to help get you there, which is where vocational courses and apprenticeships come into play.

You can take a vocational qualification and look directly for a job. You can also take an apprenticeship route into engineering. This allows you to combine on-the-job training with studying for a vocational qualification at the same time.

What types of vocational qualifications are there?

If you were doing a university degree, you might be studying for a BEng (Bachelor of Engineering) or a MEng (Masters in Engineering). These put a big focus on classroom learning - they are known as academic qualifications.

Vocational qualifications for engineering, on the other hand, include BTEC diplomas, NVQs, SVQs, HNCs, HNDs and many others. Vocational qualifications like these are recognised and respected by employers. They see vocational qualifications as proof that you have both the learning and the hands-on experience required at your level of qualification.

Example vocational qualifications for engineering

Here are just a few of the vocational engineering qualifications you could do as a school leaver. There are so many more out there to choose from.

You can take these vocational qualifications yourself in a college environment or as part of an apprenticeship with an employer.

Level 1 engineering

If you’re a school leaver considering engineering, this qualification will help you learn how to carry out basic fitting techniques and mechanical assembly, and also produce engineering drawings. It can lead to careers like: engineering operative, engineering maintenance technician, mechanical engineering technician… to name just a few.

Level 2 engineering

If you’re a school leaver with some engineering knowledge and experience, this qualification will help you get to grips with engineering technology, using computer-aided manufacturing processes and the technology behind fabrication and welding. The corresponding qualifications are included in operational performance apprenticeships and intermediate engineering manufacture apprenticeships.

Level 1-3 computer aided design

Boosting your skills in 2D and 3D design can be a big plus for a wide range of engineering roles, from GIS and BIM to railway signalling design.

Level 1-3 railway engineering

From the Certificate in Rail Engineering Underpinning Knowledge through to NVQs, these qualifications are part of the apprenticeship framework for railway engineering.

Level 2 performing engineering operations

This qualification is a must-have if you’re starting out in an engineering and advanced manufacturing career. It can be undertaken in the workplace or college and is suitable for learners of all ages.

Level 3 engineering construction

This qualification is very useful for roles like pipefitting and rigging.

Level 3 engineering technical support

This qualification is needed to becoming a support technician or perform support activities in an engineering environment. It can be undertaken when completing an advanced apprenticeship, for example.

Level 3 engineering maintenance

With an NVQ/QCF level 3 qualification you could go on to become an electrical, mechanical or civil engineer.

Level 4 engineering manufacture

This vocational qualification is designed for anyone 18+ carrying out an engineering leadership role or undertaking a Level 4 higher apprenticeship for advanced manufacturing engineering - e.g. with employer Thales.

Where could you get to in the engineering sector when taking a vocational route? In many cases, studying for a vocational qualification can allow you entry to a number of roles. Many of the following roles in engineering can be accessed via an apprenticeship which you can then build on with other vocational qualifications.

So if you’re convinced university isn’t right for you, you may be able to fulfil your calling through an alternative – but just as rewarding – route.

Don’t dream it, be it…

Many top employers are offering engineering apprenticeships and traineeships to school leavers. See Plotr’s career guides on how to get started in the following roles:

  • Apprentice railway engineering design technician at NSAR, the National Skills Academy for Rail
  • Aircraft maintenance engineer apprentice at Thales
  • Engineering apprentice at Heathrow
  • Smart metering apprentice at EDF Energy
  • Electrical maintenance apprentice at Costain
  • Trainee highways technician with various employers
  • Electrical/mechanical advanced engineering apprentice at Aggregate Industries

Apprentice engineers share their stories

See how these apprentice engineers got into what they do. Treat them as your own personal guides to what an engineering apprenticeship is really like!

  • “The apprenticeship combined what I liked about learning and working” Jake, development architecture apprentice at Accenture
  • “Whatever path I end up taking here, I know I’ll keep progressing in my career” Kirsty, engineering apprentice at National Grid
  • “An apprenticeship seemed like a sensible option – studies mixed with on the job learning instead of all classroom work” Daniel, civil engineering apprentice at Transport for London
  • “The brilliant thing about an apprenticeship here is it’s tailored totally around you” Tom, test and design engineering apprentice with Thales
  • “I am creating designs that will be used as a part of numerous projects” Joshua, apprentice signalling design engineer with MGB Engineering Ltd
  • “The Network Rail Advanced Apprenticeship Programme taught us a lot about life skills and independence” Emma, previous Network Rail apprentice – she now flies in Network Rail helicopters to take aerial photos and helps the police fight crime
  • “Finding your feet after A-levels is daunting – then someone recommended apprenticeships” Mohammed, Atkins apprentice technician studying Level 3 engineering
  • “Right from day one, I was given responsibility when I was asked to travel and represent the company at the WISE Conference and Awards” Nadia, software engineering apprentice at Thales

Example engineering careers you can enter with vocational qualifications

Gas installation

As the title suggests, you’ll find yourself swapping and upgrading systems as well as installing full systems, sometimes overseen by a more senior member of staff. In some cases you may be working with companies who supply specific items - like fireplaces, for example. This will mean your responsibilities will be geared towards that niche and can at times involve you working at heights and lifting heavy goods.

There are opportunities to enter into this area of engineering at level 2 but level 3 is a more common stage where you might decide you want to continue on to higher education or seek employment in the gas fittings industry.

Example employers: Centrica, British Gas

Aeronautical engineering

Related to aircraft systems, aeronautical engineering usually gives students a full background in both mechanical and electronic engineering and how both apply to aviation. It’s an exciting branch of engineering where you gain an understanding of the science of flight, electronic systems and aircraft radar.

When studied at level three, you can once again opt to continue your studies not only in aeronautical or aerospace engineering but other disciplines. You can also choose to enter the industry and build up your experience, whilst taking training courses to to help your career take flight.

Example employers: Heathrow, Thales

Civil engineering

As a civil engineer you get to play SimCity and help to plan and manage building projects, except you’re doing it in real life. Being involved in the design, development and construction of projects is what a civil engineer thrives on.

Studying this at level 4 can aid your progression into university, which is what some students then go on to do. You could also choose to study at this level to advance as an engineering technician. Many employers are offering alternative routes into civil engineering for school leavers, so that you can take on an apprenticeship and get vocational qualifications as a result.

Example employers: Costain, Atkins, Balfour Beatty, HS2

Mechanical Engineering

At level 5 you can expect to fill a role within engineering that carries with it a fair bit of responsibility. You can take diplomas that focus on advanced engineering and provide a flexible route as a professional engineer. A level 5 diploma is ideal if you’re looking for a first-level management role or for people wanting to further their interest in mechanical engineering as well as electrical and civil engineering too.

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