'It's great when you fix a line'

Michelle Grandon, 23, is a telecoms engineer apprentice with Openreach, based in Cumbria and Lancashire. She was a finalist for the Dyson Young Woman Engineering Apprentice of the Year Award.

What do you actually do?

My job involves installing and repairing telephone lines. People call us if their broadband internet connection isn't working, and I'll find and repair the fault. I start work at 8am, downloading the details of my first job from my laptop. Once I know the customer's address and what the problem is, I drive over in a van. I climb up telegraph poles to connect the wires, and clamber down into joint boxes, which are like manholes, since telephone lines have various connection points underground. I also go into people's houses to drill and wire up new sockets. I usually do three or four jobs a day, finishing about 4pm.

Why do you love your job?

It's hands-on and practical, but not mind-numbingly boring. I love being outdoors in the fresh air - my previous job involved working with horses, but this job gives me better career prospects. Nothing ever goes straightforwardly - you might find the wires are too low, or that only one part of the line is faulty. So you're constantly learning and making decisions. It's great when you fix a line that's been off for a couple of weeks, and people have their internet connection back. I've had a few stroppy customers, but generally when you tell people that you're doing your best to get the line working, they understand that you're not fobbing them off.

What's difficult about it?

Getting cold and wet is probably the worst thing about it. In the summer, it's great to be outside in the sunshine, but in the winter, it's not so great. When I first started, I found it daunting to open up one of those green telecom cabinets you see by the side of the road, and see this huge mass of messy-looking wires. I thought I'd never be able to tell which line was which. But they are all numbered, so you just need to learn the numbering system, and then it's fine.

What skills do you need to be a telecoms engineer?

You need to be good at problem solving - at school, I was always interested in science and maths, and to get an apprenticeship, you will need five GCSEs grades A to C. You also need to enjoy dealing with people, because you're communicating all the time with customers and other engineers. You've got to be pretty fit - it's not too strenuous, but I have got stronger. I was a bit scared when I first started climbing up the telegraph poles. You have a secure safety harness, so that you can lean back and work with both hands, but it takes a while to trust the harness. We also wear tool belts, and once mine unclipped and fell off, giving me a nasty shock. But the actual harness itself is very secure, so there's no need to worry about falling.

What would you say to someone who wanted to be a telecoms engineer?

It's probably the best thing I've ever done. I really want to encourage more women to join. You shouldn't be put off by the fact that there aren't many women doing it - women make great engineers and tend to be better at dealing with customers. There's no age limit for apprenticeships, and you get paid during the three years you're an apprentice, so you learn while you earn. It might seem a low place to start, but there are lots of opportunities to move up. I'm already coaching other people. You get on-the-job training in safety, wiring and so on, plus a BTEC and NVQ in telecommunications.

What's the salary and career path like?

As an apprentice, you start on £10,000 a year, then that moves up to £12,000 after the first year, then £14,000, then £16,000. Six years after starting, you'd be earning £21,000 a year. You can go into management, training or designing.

For information on careers in telecoms engineering, visit www.bt.com/apprentice; or the Engineering Training Council UK at www.engc.org.uk; or the Engineering Training Council Northern Ireland at www.etcni.org.uk.