How I made the most of my apprenticeship

A recent winner of the RICS Apprentice of the Year award shares her experiences of overcoming doubt and difficulties to excel in their studies and career development


  • Chloe Hartley MRICS

03 January 2024

Panoramic view of Sheffield city centre

During my final year in school, an education representative from the local council gave a presentation on apprenticeships. After 15 minutes I thought, 'What do I have to lose?' So I signed up.

At this point I was not sure whether I wanted to do quantity surveying, project management or engineering. But I had at least taken the first step to find out more. I knew any of these apprenticeships would have provided a fantastic skill set for the future.

I decided to pursue the quantity surveying path after I researched the sectors and courses, and I started at Mott MacDonald in 2017 straight after my A levels.

Over the past six years, I have completed the chartered surveyor degree apprenticeship; this involved a five-year degree course and taking the RICS APC.

In that time, I have worked on defence, energy and education projects, achieved a first-class honours degree, won RICS Apprentice of the Year award, and become chartered at the first attempt.

Taking opportunities to fast-track development

Undertaking a degree while working was never going to be easy. However, by setting myself boundaries at work and university, managing my time effectively and asking for help when needed, I succeeded.

At the start of my apprenticeship, I worked alongside a small group of quantity surveyors, learning the basic technical skills. While in the office, I also worked alongside several project managers who I would often shadow in meetings and on-site visits. This helped me gain a wider view of the construction industry.

Throughout my apprenticeship, I took every opportunity that I could. The degree apprenticeship route is a fantastic way to learn, even for those who may have thought university was not for them.

During my time at Sheffield Hallam University, I was an ambassador for apprenticeships in the local area, for which I created marketing content and offered an apprentice's opinion on issues raised at the university or on panels. This helped me build confidence, developed my soft skills and allowed me to take a break from project work to focus on influencing others.

In the second year of my apprenticeship, I signed up to be the lead early-career professional for estimating and cost intelligence at Mott MacDonald. Initially, I was not sure whether I was ready for this responsibility.

However, with support and encouragement from my mentor I applied and got the role. This allowed me to expand my network, increase my technical knowledge, and further develop my confidence.

This March, I was made early-career professional for carbon estimating in the estimating and cost intelligence team. Just a few months later I was offered the day-to-day management of our carbon estimating service.

This is an exciting opportunity in a developing area, and I am keen to make the most of it. After becoming chartered I was not particularly looking for anything new right away, but this was a chance I could not turn down.

To my surprise, I was nominated and shortlisted for RICS Apprentice of the Year in 2021, which I won. This had come after a very tough year.

I had struggled with some of my third-year modules at university, while I had also contracted COVID-19 and suffered its longer-term effects, including anxiety when returning to in-person events and reduced physical ability.

Winning such a prestigious award was an incredible achievement, and one I will never take for granted.

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Applying myself and seeking advice

As someone who never got the highest grades at school or sixth form I knew this degree apprenticeship would be my biggest challenge yet, so I did not take the commitment lightly.

At the start of my apprenticeship, my grades were not great. I had ambitions of achieving a 2:1; however, I struggled with the jump between sixth form and university.

One of my very first obstacles was academic writing and referencing, and it was something I had to learn very quickly.

To help progress in this area, I watched videos online and talked to fellow students. Throughout my apprenticeship, I learned the importance of asking for help.

When I received a first in my studies, I realised that hard work does pay off. Spending extra time after work to learn parts of the modules that I hadn't fully understood proved to be worth it.

So in years three to five I worked harder, putting in extra hours when needed, asking for extra support and developing my knowledge.

I faced my biggest challenge yet in my third year on the contract practice module, which I had heard all about and dreaded the thought of.

As a quantity surveyor my comfort zone was cost, not contracts. But this module required me to use what I had learned and push my boundaries.

During my degree, I was also lucky enough to be involved in some career-defining work, including several education, research and development projects.

This not only exposed me to new experiences and learning but gave me the confidence to stretch myself. I will be forever grateful to my team at Mott MacDonald for giving me the opportunity and trusting me to immerse myself fully in these projects.

In addition, through continuous use of estimating and measurement software CostX I became a superuser, training and sharing my knowledge with others. By doing so, I gained confidence and pushed to develop my skills further.

Three challenges boost my confidence

Starting my apprenticeship at 18, I had been nervous about what the workplace would be like, how I would fit in and whether I would be able to manage everything. It can be very overwhelming, but it is natural to feel that.

Every step of the way during my apprenticeship I learned, grew and developed. However, there were specific moments that shaped me as a professional.

The first of these was understanding that I had to confront my fear of presenting head on. I tackled this by presenting as much as possible at university, through project and ambassador work.

The phrase 'practice makes perfect' proved very true: by doing something more often, you grow in confidence and learn from successes and mistakes.

I went from nervously presenting in front of 20 people at university to confidently presenting to 150 at an Association for Project Management webinar in a few short years. There is no better feeling than confronting a fear and seeing how far you have come.

The second moment was when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I had spent two and a half years working in the office, attending university and learning everything in person. Suddenly, all this moved online.

For the past three years I have worked from home, studied online as well as at university, and found new ways to learn remotely.

Switching to fully remote practices for work and education was initially difficult because I was comfortable and used to learning in person. Access to people becomes harder online, and as an apprentice I was keen for hands-on experience.

But with support from my team and personal determination, I made the most of a difficult situation and learned the importance of being able to adapt.

By taking part in online study groups throughout lockdowns and going back into university after restrictions were lifted, I was able to make the most of a tough period.

Third, I became the line manager of an apprentice, which was a big move forward in my career. Responsibility for another professional was also a significant change after spending four years looking after myself and my own development.

However, becoming a line manager was on the whole the best thing I did for my APC.

It allowed me to develop the skill of explaining difficult concepts clearly and concisely, challenged me in technical areas that had not been at the forefront of my mind since university, and built my confidence in relaying information.

Top tips for the surveying apprentice

  1. Pursue what you are good at and what you enjoy.
  2. Take every opportunity you can while you are learning – all experience is good experience.
  3. Developing yourself as a rounded professional is important. You should develop technical and non-technical skills equally.
  4. Find your passion by working – don't just wait for it to come your way.
  5. It's fine not to know everything. As an apprentice you have a unique opportunity to work alongside leading professionals – use this opportunity to the fullest.
  6. If you fear doing something, confront it while you have time to grow and learn from it.
  7. Try several revision methods to see which works best for you. For example, flash cards never worked for me except when I was preparing for my final assessment and they became my main source. Learn, write, repeat.
  8. Reflect. Although six years may feel like a long time, it does fly by. It can very quickly become overwhelming when you achieve so much in a short space of time. It is important to celebrate each success and identify what you've learned from each experience.

Rigorous revision helps focus on assessment

I knew for six years that my final assessment was gradually approaching, but the magnitude of the experience only became clear when I began planning and revising.

In the build-up to my assessment, I used Mott MacDonald resources – including twice-weekly training by experts on RICS competencies – spoke with existing assessors and chartered professionals, and reviewed best practice guidance.

My most effective revision technique has always been questions and answers. In preparing for my assessment, I did several mock APC interviews and many question-and-answer sessions, with different assessors each time.

This may seem excessive to some, but I knew I had to do everything I could to make myself feel confident about the assessment.

As my interview came closer, I started focusing my revision on my weak spots. It was very difficult not to get disheartened after a question-and-answer on the areas where I was less strong.

However, these were the most valuable mocks that I had, allowing me to confront my weaknesses directly in a safe environment.

Mentors support career development

I have had several mentors throughout my apprenticeship, covering both technical and non-technical guidance, and I have mentored others myself for around two years as well.

After completing my degree, I decided to find a new mentor outside my discipline who could help me navigate the next stage of my career.

I also asked my mentor to help with a few professional weak spots; for example, learning how to navigate tricky situations and broadening my knowledge of the way clients and contractors view project issues.

Being mentored has been an absolute joy and given me plenty of insight. I know that I have an outside perspective and unbiased opinion to which I can turn for advice on any career moves or difficult situations I may face.

My highlight was when my mentor helped me recognise and manage feelings of self-doubt, commonly known as imposter syndrome.

This was not easy to overcome, but since that conversation I feel as though I know much more about myself.

The monthly calls I have with my mentor give me the head space to reflect on my progress – and where I may want to go next.

Chloe Hartley MRICS is a quantity surveyor at Mott MacDonald and recipient of the 2021 RICS Apprentice of the Year award

Contact Chloe: Email | LinkedIn

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As part of our ongoing commitment to raise the profile of industry professionals and teams, the Awards aim to demonstrate the positive impact that the built environment has on individuals and communities, while also promoting the role that the profession has in making projects a reality.

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