My Apprenticeship Journey – Sam Whitbread, Business & Administration Apprentice at Unilever

Posted: 3rd of August 2016 by Emily Dujon

I make business critical decisions every day, I create and roll out internal communications that will be seen by the majority of the 174,000 employees in our company across the globe. I align strategies with our counterparts in America, Africa, China (the list goes on), I create presentations that will be seen and analysed by our CEO. I am an apprentice.

I come to the office with a smile on my face, working Monday to Friday, 9 till 5. I’m getting paid, I’m having fun, and I’m gaining qualifications alongside of it. Looking back there’s no question or doubt in my mind as to why you should choose an apprenticeship, but here’s how it went for me…

During sixth form I was predicted good grades and was pushed to apply for Oxford, Cambridge and the top universities with little exposure to alternative routes such as apprenticeships. Despite having doubts I embarked on the next chapter of my life and enlisted at Durham University in September 2014.


Although the typical uni aspects were enjoyable; making new friends, moving away from home, becoming more independent, attending formals, indulging in fresher’s week, it just wasn’t ‘all that’. At the time I wasn’t sure what ‘all that’ really was, or what it even meant, for all I knew I was searching for something unattainable.

I had around 6 contact hours a week and the remainder of the time was left to study and undertake extra-curricular activities, which most students spent in their tiny rooms, where I soon felt lonely and unmotivated. Couple this with the fact that ½ of my course (I was a joint honours undergrad) I had already learned, revised, memorised, sang, rapped, made posters out of, and sat examinations for at A-Levels- the boredom and reality didn’t wait long before it came creeping in.

It soon rolled round that I returned home for Christmas (I must admit having scheduled, lengthy holidays is something that I definitely long for but a smaller holiday allowance is a small price to pay) and spent quality time with family, friends and my boyfriend, quickly settling back into routine. Making the pilgrimage back to Durham in January was one I was excited for; the city is beautiful - possibly my favourite place in the UK- I’d be welcomed by the warm faces of my fellow students with an excitement for the new term in their eyes matching mine, I’d catch up with friends, mould back into my slippers and wonder round college in my dressing gown for lazy breakfasts after wild nights in the college bar (all hail residing at a college contained under one roof).

On my second day back I woke up and found that I was having to drag myself out of bed to get to lectures; as a morning person who usually rises around 6am (thanks mum for the unnaturally optimistic body clock) this is completely unheard of. It was at this point that I started to seriously consider whether I wanted to commit 3 years of my life and £50,000 worth of debt to this (I have roughly £9000 from 1 term alone). Would it all be worth it? I then spent the next 2 days online searching for alternative routes, getting lost in forums discussing the pros and cons of university and, in true student style, creating a poster weighing up  my own benefits and drawbacks of what I was about to do.

Making the phone call to my mum to break the news to her has become so ingrained in my memory; crying at my decision only for her to cry back in response, the prospect of having lost purpose and direction, the uncertainty of the next steps in my life… yet above all this was the overwhelming sense of relief and freedom, only proving to me that following my gut instincts had been the right thing to do.

It wasn’t long before I was cooped in a car surrounded by (possibly drowning in) my possessions that I’d deployed in a bid to transform my room into as much of a friendly home as is possible, and enduring the 6 hour drive to return home… for good. 

Sure, if my course had been leading me into a set career such as dentistry, medicine etc. I would’ve stuck it out. But the prospect of studying for 3 years to then join a grad scheme and work while gaining experience seemed a silly way to do things, when I could jump on an apprenticeship now- 3 years and £50,000 ahead of my peers.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t sure what “all that” really was…

One thing that really is ‘all that’ is my apprenticeship and the life it has now lead me to have. I have an insane group of friends who I can reach on IM, email, meet for lunch, share work stories with, go out with after work, go for 3pm jogs along the river Thames…yet I don’t have to clear up after them or plead for them to introduce Mrs washing up liquid to Mr plate. I’m also earning a decent London salary, gaining unparalleled experience, a wealth of skills and knowledge, and forming real connections with impressionable people who can -and are truly passionate to - help progress my career. My reluctant rolls out of bed and tortoise-like trudges down to the lecture theatres have now transformed into sprightful 6am jumps out of bed to work out and juice before commuting into the office.

As for the social side of university, I certainly haven’t lost that – in fact I’ve probably gained it in quality. I recently organised 4 days away in lodges at Centre Parcs (where there may have been 240 red cups and a bucket withstanding 8 litres of Pimms involved), and on a Friday night it’s not unusual to find us in a local bar within staggering distance from the office. (This is unless I’m spending my Saturday at a careers fair encouraging others to have the courage to embark on apprenticeships and join the new wave of millennial apprentices.)


You grow up having everything so perfectly mapped out for you, granted you may have to choose which schools to attend, but it’s pretty much set in stone that you’ll attend pre-school aged 2 ½, hop off to Junior school aged 5, progress on to Secondary school at 11 and continue some kind of education until you delve into adulthood at 18. Once you reach this age however it’s completely in your hands, a wealth of opportunities to explore and embark on, time to really find yourself and discover who you are. Yet if you don’t have the right guidance in coming to this decision it can prove extremely overwhelming.

I’d urge everyone to do as much research as you can and take the time out to really acknowledge what it is that you want to do, what it is that your gut and your heart are pointing towards. Have these conversations, reach out to people and discover your passions, whether you end up at University, on an apprentice or in full time work, just be mindful of how you got there and be certain it’s where you really want to be.

I launched my career at the age of 19 in a global company where I have real responsibility every day, and I wouldn’t change things and the way they’ve panned out for the world.


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