Step into STEM: A Case Study on Michael Stephenson

Thank you for inviting me to tell my story of how UTC South Durham has helped me to progress in my career ambitions.


My name is Michael Stephenson, and I attended UTC South Durham as one of their first students when the college first opened in 2016.

I left 2 years later, achieving academic success in several technical and vocational engineering qualifications.

I was also lucky enough to receive The Baker Award in 2019, in which I attended a presentation from Lord Baker at St James’ Palace.

I am now doing an Advanced Technical Apprenticeship with HITACHI Rail Limited, and I have just completed my first year at their state-of-the-art Rail Manufacturing Facility in Newton Aycliffe.

I’m really pleased to have the chance today to tell you more about what I’m doing and why going to the UTC has been so important to me. 


Why did I choose to attend South Durham UTC?

Choosing the UTC instead of staying on at my previous school has definitely enabled me to realise my potential - giving me the knowledge and skills that are needed to progress straight into employment.

Work placements with industry partners gave me further opportunities to develop my confidence, learn how to present myself at work, and know how to communicate with potential employers.

While at the UTC, I was elected a member of the Student Leadership Team and I assisted the Principal and Business Engagement team on many occasions. Student Leaders require high standards of themselves and act as an example to other pupils, while representing their views at College Leadership Team meetings.

Being a Student Leader led to opportunities to show local dignitaries, such as UTC Trustees, NE business leaders and local MPs, around the new college building on a number of open events. I also appeared on the ITV North East News featuring the landmark event of the first train to leave Hitachi Rail Aycliffe.

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is another area where UTC South Durham students can really benefit from their close links with industry partners. My EPQ looked at the future of rail transport and was highly relevant to my future employment ambitions.

Attending the UTC helps to prepare students for their life after college and it definitely gave me the confidence and skills that I needed to approach potential employers, performing well at interview panel and at selection days. 


What have I been up to since leaving UTC

Whilst at UTC I was fortunate enough to participate in several work placements with Industry partners including HITACHI, who are major sponsors of UTC South Durham.

I was inspired by my tour of the Aycliffe Rail assembly plant and I wanted to learn more about HITACHI’s role in building the next generation of InterCity trains. When HITACHI advertised the Advanced Apprenticeship, I jumped at the chance to get my application in early.

After a rigorous selection process, I was lucky enough to be offered the role of Technical Apprentice and started working in the Engineering TEST Team in 2018.


What does my working life as a Technical Apprentice in the HITACHI Rail, IEP TEST team involve?

My team works extensively on the new Class 800 Azuma Intercity Express and Milano Metro trains. The trains are a combination of fully electric and bi-mode Hybrid power, the latter have diesel and electric propulsion. The trains can travel at up to 180 mph.

The TEST teams are based in their own purpose-built facility and I play a vital role at the end of the production process. Each train undergoes 30 days of vigorous testing before it will go down to Doncaster for the final commissioning before delivery to the customer.


What my working day looks like:

My day begins with a briefing from the Test section leader.

Work priorities are agreed, and tasks are allocated to each Test Technician.

The range of tests undertaken by the team is extremely varied and include:

  • Initial testing of the High Voltage cable which runs the train
  • Testing the brakes and all related computer software
  • Drivers Cab and safety equipment
  • In car testing of USB sockets and WIFI
  • And finally, low speed test track trial of the finished train


What is does my training programme look like?

My apprenticeship covers both on the job and academic-based training and I am studying for an BTEC Level 3 in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Over the next year I will complete my NVQ, before becoming a fully qualified Engineering Technician.

What are my ambitions for future?

My long-term plan is to be become an Electrical Engineer by continuing my journey through to level 5 qualifications.

I’m really enjoying what I’m doing at HITACHI Rail, and I couldn’t have done it without my UTC / the friends that I made / and the experience that I gained there / along with the numerous development opportunities that this has given me.

‘Attending UTC has quite literally been one of the best decisions I have taken in life so far…’