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Luca Lowe - From sixth form to apprentice project manager

"you’re surrounded by experts"

Luca Lowe always wanted a fall-back option, a route other than university. He was set to go and study business management, but he also wanted something else. He was looking for an apprenticeship, something that would really wow him. It had to be amazing if he was going to turn his back on university.

“I got to the end of sixth form, and I was kind of sick of sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher, reading from a textbook,” he explains. “I wanted to go in feet first and learn the theory, but schedule that around on-the-job work.

He first searched for placements in his hometown of Hull and found nothing. “So I looked in Leeds, and this project management apprenticeship stood out to me. It looked awesome. It meant that I could work on all sorts of different projects within a big company, which I thought was really cool.”

Joining Direct Line

The placement in question was an APM project management apprenticeship at insurance company Direct Line. Luca would work closely with a number of experienced project managers, learning the ropes and his theory as he went. Then, when he was ready, he would be given his own project.

Luca had always been passionate about business and management at school – particularly how you develop and grow a business. Now he would have the opportunity to work on change projects at a big, renowned brand.

“It was the variety of projects and opportunities that you could get at Direct Line Group, and the fact that I’d still be sticking to my roots in that it was a very business-focused role,” he says. “The corporate environment also added to the attractiveness of the role. I’m not saying that if it was a smaller business, I wouldn’t have gone for it, but it kind of embedded it even more that I could do pretty well, there.”

Overcoming fears

Luca’s passion and enthusiasm for the placement shone through at interview stage, and he was selected for the apprenticeship. He was excited, but nervous and more than a little anxious. He considered himself quite a shy worrier, and he was about to hit the ground running on a new career. The idea of calling someone filled him with dread.

When he joined Direct Line, he spoke to his line manager about how he could overcome his anxiety “He told me I had to throw myself in the deep end. You have to remember that all of the stakeholders you’re speaking to are the same as you, so you don’t need to be intimidated. He said: ‘when you’re speaking to people, you’re doing a good job, so you don’t have to worry about what people think about you’.”

He also had a lot of support from colleagues and his mentor, and as he learned more and more skills, his nerves fell away. “I got an experienced public speaker to join my calls, and after the call, we’d talk about how I’d done, how I could improve and stuff like that. That was a great bit of support, because I was getting loads of constructive feedback that I could apply on the next call.

“You’re hit with a lot of information on your apprenticeship,” he continues. “You’re trying to learn through APM while trying to understand the context of automation. I’ve always been into technology, but not in that much depth. But by speaking to everyone you’re working with, you can pick up an awful lot.”

He started off supporting other project managers in the organisation, slowly increasing his responsibility, until he was ready to take on his own project. “It gave me the freedom to learn and work at the same time....You’re learning on the job, you’re surrounded by experts – in university, you might have one or two professors, but you’ve got a company full of experts.”

Taking on a project

Luca recently passed the APM Project Management Qualification (PMQ) and now manages an offshore team delivering an automation project as part of a wider transformation agenda at Direct Line. His role started with bringing the offshore team into Direct Line to brief them on the project and educate them on how the rest of the company works. He now manages the team remotely through regular video calls and monitoring and managing the process from start to finish – something he wouldn’t have dreamt of doing at the start of his placement.

A big part of the project is keeping the teams at Direct Line updated on how the project is progressing and how it might affect them: “There is an element of business change – getting the business areas prepared for the automation systems. We do a document that’s basically a specification of what the automation does, what time it opens, what time it closes, that document is given to the teams and they take the responsibility to use it.”

Getting people to trust an apprentice to deliver an important part of a project can also be a challenge, he explains. “You just have to prove that you can produce a quality output as well as anyone else. It’s just that initial trust barrier – you need to show them what you’re made of.”

Luca advises other students considering taking an apprenticeship to do their research: “The hardest thing about apprenticeships is finding the right one for you. You need to have some focus as to what you want to do.”

As for Luca’s next steps, he wants to remain at Direct Line and progress as far as he can, there – either as a senior project manager or programme manager. “We’ve got a great culture at Direct Line Group, it’s very caring and supportive, we’ve got good company values. I know how lucky I am to work at a company like this.

“Maybe one day, I might look into working on projects within a small tech start-up or a fashion company but sticking with transformation projects.”

Brought to you by Project journal.

Further reading

Top tips on passing the project management qualifications

Project You student guide to project management

How to get into project management without a degree

Starting out in project management

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