From pints to pipes – one engineer's career journey

  • How determination took Natalie Foster from bar manager to boiler engineer
  • ”I knew from an early age I wanted a hands-on job”

Natalie Foster, 32, is from Bromley, Kent. She is challenging stereotypes with a hands-on apprenticeship.

 

“When I was a child, my mum hated giving me presents because I’d always take them apart to see how they worked! I knew from an early age I wanted a hands-on job.

 

But at school, girls tended to be steered towards academia or professions such 
as hairdressing or beauty. None of that appealed to me, so after two years at university studying sociology, I got a job
 as a barmaid. I worked really hard and, five years on, I was the deputy pub manager. Ironically, that’s when I lost my love for the job. I found myself stuck behind a computer, craving that one-to-one contact with the customers again. It was frustrating and the long shifts – sometimes from 8.30am until 2am – were taking their toll on my health. I lost a lot of weight, felt tired all the time and missed out on all the family gatherings and friends’ nights out.

 

When I turned 30, I decided if I didn’t quit and retrain, I’d never do it. So I applied to do a one-year college course in plumbing, which ticked all the boxes for me. It was hands-on, there was lots of contact with customers and it rekindled my love of fixing things.

Natalie Foster and fellow apprentices in the classroom, wearing the British Gas uniform.

Giving up a £25,000 salary was a huge gamble. I had to work part-time in a kitchen, on the minimum wage, to fund my studies (which cost around £1,000). I only managed because I lived with my mum. My family were supportive and they were delighted that I’d finally get to see them more.

 

Afterwards, I ended up in commercial plumbing, fitting out new offices. Deep down, I wanted that face-to-face contact with customers so I then applied for a British Gas apprenticeship. I had to go through an incredibly rigorous selection process, including tests in maths, English and general knowledge and two interviews, plus an open day. I was ecstatic three months later when I heard that I’d beaten 10,000 other applicants to land the position!

 

Now I spend half my time learning theory and the rest out on jobs with my brilliantly supportive mentors.

The look on a customer's face when I tell them I've fixed their heating is priceless

I’m learning how to service and repair boilers along with other appliances and I absolutely love it. There’s nothing like watching a boiler spring into action again and telling a customer that you’ve fixed their heating. The look on their face when they know that they can have a hot bath again is absolutely priceless!

 

Plumbing can be heavy work but I’m pretty strong and haven’t had a problem so far. I qualify next February but, for the next few years, I’ll still have to buddy up with an experienced gas engineer – and, after about five years, I could potentially earn up to £35,000.
 My new skills are already coming in handy. Recently, my boiler broke and 
I managed to fix it. It just needed to get pressure back into it – a simple job – but before I’d have had to call out a plumber so I was very chuffed with myself.

 

People are often surprised when they answer the door to a female plumber, but mostly they tell me it makes a nice change. A couple of times men have questioned whether I’ll be able to do a job, but I smile sweetly and say, “Of course I can, I can do it better than the boys.” I’d tell anyone thinking of retraining to go for it. If you are determined enough, you can make it happen.”

 

From around the web

The Institute of Engineering and Technology gets its first female president

James Dyson: we need more female engineers

How to become an apprentice

 

Text by: NATASHA HOLT Photo: ANGELA SPAIN.

© PRIMA MAGAZINE (UK), HEARST MAGAZINES UK

 

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