What’s it like to be a Network Rail apprentice? We talk to first-year apprentice Keneefia Parker about “limitless” career opportunities and where to get the most amazing views of the London skyline.
Watch Keneefia in this video:
“Keep studying and keep pushing.”
“I always enjoyed helping others, trying to make the world a better place.”
What’s your job?
I am a track apprentice. Every day is a different day. Our main job is to maintain the railway, so that can lead from doing surveying to making sure the spacing of the railway is correct… on to heavy maintenance, which is to replace any defects we see, welding, the list goes on…
What’s the first year of the apprenticeship like?
The first year is more theory-based because you spend six months doing theory here at Westwood but the second half – the next six months – you pretty much get out there, put everything you learned into practice.
The second year is more focused on completing certain jobs, getting your competencies, and just trying to get as much experience as you can in different pathways.
How will it feel when you finish your apprenticeship?
It will be great because three years of putting hard work in, finally seeing it pay off, I think that would be an amazing experience.
You didn’t go to university?
After A Levels, I knew uni wasn’t for me. I ended up taking a gap year and in that gap year I looked around for different apprenticeships and none of them really spoke to me.
My dad was an engineer and he inspired me to become an engineer. I was really adamant I must do something within the engineering industry. His friend had told me about Network Rail … and I’m here today.
My parents were very much uni-driven … it was like uni was the best way forward. I had to tell them, ‘uni’s not for everyone’ and I had to show them and keep pushing and I guess I’ve proven them wrong.
There’s not a day that goes by that I regret my decision. After the apprenticeship I might look into going to uni as now I feel more prepared.
As an apprentice at Network Rail, do you get a similar feel to the university experience?
You get that uni feel, especially when you come here, the studying, the meeting people from different parts of England, it’s amazing, really.
The best part of it is you’re getting paid to study so I tell anyone who wants to do an apprenticeship or doesn’t know if uni’s for them to follow their gut feelings and if it’s not for you, always try a different route because you never know, you might end up exactly where you need to be.
When you get your first pay cheque, it reassures you you’re meant to be here.
What have been your best memories of your first year?
Last year, when it was the hottest week, they decided they wanted to do a cookout outside and that day was just great … We were still working hard but there was something about that day that was so fun … Everyone was happy.
When you’re here, you make some lifetime friends, which is great because at least they’ll get to understand you more … When you have friends here, you can always speak to them because they know what you’re going through.
What do your friends think of your career?
A lot of my friends are very proud of me for doing what I’ve always wanted to do in my life. Quite a few of them said they wished they’d had my kind of courage to go into a male-dominated industry.
What was the first thing you ever fixed?
My dad always told me to come and help him fix certain things, like wiring in the house … My dad does a lot of wiring, technical stuff, so I think the very first thing I wired together was a fire system in my house, which was fun.
Confusing at first but fun overall, just to spend some time with my dad and figure out what kind of discipline I wanted to get into. I was around about the age of 13 … I felt proud of myself, I was like, ‘if I can do this, I can do anything’.
Did you have a role model growing up?
[My dad has] always been that person for me because he was basically the first out of my family to enter the Army and do engineering so my dad was very much my role model growing up and still is today.
What did you enjoy studying at school?
For me, chemistry and physics were always my go to subjects … Just to see how elements and components work together was always exciting, to see the explosions.
The theory behind it as well … When you figure out how matter works and alpha and beta, all of those things … Keep studying and keep pushing because you’ll find your interest in there somewhere.
What would you tell someone who’s finding science or maths difficult at school?
Not to give up. There are moments when you want to give up, but just keep pushing, go to your teachers … Look over your questions. If you can, get your old papers you’ve done, where you went wrong … Just never give up. That’s the main thing.
What’s exciting about engineering?
The way technology is always advancing. Who doesn’t want to be on that wave of understanding? Infrastructure is also growing … For me, when I’m on the route, I like to look at things and say, ‘how do they do that?’
Do apprentices work night shifts? What are they like?
I’m only doing night shifts when I work on track. The best part of it are the views that I get to see on track … It’s the peace you get at night you’re working that you don’t get so much in the morning … To be working at night, I’m at my best; I’m heightened then.
What’s your favourite view from the railway?
The London Eye and Big Ben. I was working at Charing Cross on the bridge and was just walking past over the Thames, it was a sight for sore eyes. Just all the lights lit up – you don’t really get that type of view anywhere so just to see that, it’s kind of amazing.
For me, when I’m walking on track or when I’m doing something, I’m always at peace of mind. I’m just consolidating my week, my day, it’s much more than just a bit of grease on your hands, wearing heavy PPE and the rain. It makes you very happy.
Westwood, our apprentices training centre in Coventry
What jobs opportunities are there after the apprenticeship scheme?
My line manager as well as the apprentices before me say that I’m not just limited to just track. Some of them have on to team leader, to section managers, which is quite inspiring ‘cause just knowing there are different opportunities you can take, it’s amazing. This is a career that is limitless in terms of where you want to go and where you want to be.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
In five years’ time I’d like to be working with [mobile operations managers]. They deal with accidents on the railway … Growing up, I always enjoyed helping others, trying to make the world a better place … It’s still to do with track engineering but it also deals a lot with helping others as well so I feel like that’s my home place to be.
Do you feel proud?
Yes, I do. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
What do you hope the makeup of railway workers will look like by the end of your careers?
Being one of the few Black females on the railway, it’s hard sometimes to relate to a lot of other people based on how I’ve grown up and all of that. To get more Black females especially on the railway would be something I would love to see, to see them progress and become something inspirational to other Black ladies … For diversity on the railway, that would mean a lot to me.
I want to be one of those people that can inspire other people. To make a difference, to show my siblings even the smallest things of being an apprentice, you can change a lot of things.