Over the past few weeks much attention has been paid to the value of a university education compared to apprenticeship training.

The conversation on the value of a degree gathered momentum as students started their university courses racking up loans without the clear prospect of a job which would allow them to repay the money at the end of their degrees. As we adapt to life in the time of Covid, a narrative – already under way – was amplified as many courses moved online.

I think that either pathway has strong merits. One is no more superior to the other – but for a long time we have considered apprenticeships to be lower down the ladder when it comes to starting a career.

I looked at my own family and it is a tale of two brothers. One was awarded a First Class degree in Pure Maths at Imperial College the other, RiverTribe’s Fit For Business Writer, Simon Duberley, left school at 16 and did an apprenticeship at Martin-Baker Aircraft. Here is his story.

At 11:45am, on the 28th September 2018, at USMC Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, a United States Marine Pilot climbed aboard his F-35B Lightning II fighter aircraft to continue his operational duties. Shortly after take-off, the aircraft developed a crippling malfunction, forcing the pilot to eject. In less than a split second, the pilot was safely hanging from his parachute, the $120 million aircraft doomed to the swampland below. The news of this life saving event spread like wildfire in the company that I work for. It was the first F-35 ejection since the aircraft entered service some 12 years earlier.

Martin-Baker Aircraft is the world leader in Ejection Seat design and to date has saved the lives of some 7633 aircrew from all over the world. My life at the company started with an apprenticeship when I was just 17 years old. My apprenticeship was a manual skilled one, enabling me with the many skills needed for using all the hand tools and machinery necessary to become part of the business. After one year, I was selected for a position in the Experimental Department. I would stay there for 25 years. Twenty-five years of building seats to be tested out of rocket sleds and fast-moving aircraft. Assisting our development teams in perfecting the design of these seats comes with many challenges and as I matured, my interest in the many mechanisms of an ejection system grew.

Most people think that the F-35 is a relatively new fighter aircraft but the roots of its design and development go back many years and in 2002, Martin-Baker Aircraft started designing the bones of an ejection system worthy of the program. Some time later, the parts of the new design made it into the experimental department for the assembly work to begin. Many challenges had to be overcome but one by one they were met and put to bed. Along the way, I had progressed into the inspection area of the section and started clearing the first flight seats into service. Not long after working in this new role I was asked if would consider applying for the position of technical instructor. I applied and was successful although I was asked to remain in my current position and assist in continuing to clear the first 104 F-35 flight seats. This took me another 3 months, but I was soon bedded into my new role.

My role within the customer training centre would be to deliver courses across the many different Ejection Seat types to our military end users and aircraft manufacturers which in turn facilitated the need to regularly travel overseas.  It was not long before I was asked to deliver F-35 Ejection Seat training courses, something that I still occasionally do to this day.

You can take away what you want from a lifetime working at Martin-Baker Aircraft, but I will only ever feel blessed to experience a career pathway with such immense job satisfaction.

Oh, and the first F-35 ejection? Everyone at this fantastic company of 900 plus people was responsible in saving this young Marine’s life, including myself as it was seat number 91 and one of the last Ejection Seats that I inspected before it went out the door.  

It is a great story….my other brother has also enjoyed a long and satisfying career in the defence sector. Both are happy. Both have raised exemplary children. Both serve their country. Need I say more.