Earning-while-learning has really worked for me!

Case Study: Beatrice O'Loan

Beatrice O’Loan is a HSEQ Coordinator at Jennings Building & Civil Engineering Ltd in North Wales. In her interview, Beatrice explains why she chose to pursue a career in health and safety, the part NEBOSH qualifications have played, and the benefits to be gained from earning while you learning!

Beatrice, can you tell us about your background and education?

I have lived in North Wales since birth. I have always had a love for academia, so I thoroughly enjoyed my schooling. I started to think about my career more seriously when I started choosing my GCSEs. I decided I wanted to transfer schools and took an entrance exam for a few independent schools. I was very lucky to be awarded a scholarship by Myddelton College in Denbigh, which also progressed into my 6th form education there.

Whilst at 6th form, I studied quite an array of subjects, as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do yet. I studied English Literature, Psychology, Business Studies, and completed an EPQ alongside my
A-levels. I had secured a place to read English Literature at the University of Manchester.

When you finished college in March 2022 and chose not to go to university as planned. What prompted this change of heart and what did you opt to do instead?
There were many factors that made me decide not to go to university, the main one being I was unsure what I wanted to do. Inspired by those who had taught me, I originally thought I wanted to be an English teacher, but after working for my college as a summer school assistant, I felt it wasn’t for me. I was completely lost on what I wanted to do, and with COVID-19 changing university lifestyles, I deferred my position at Manchester.

Despite having good A-Level results, I struggled to find work, eventually securing zero hours contracts in retail. I wanted something that was challenging and engaging, so my fiancé’s mum suggested I go into pharmaceuticals as it was a step up from customer service.

I secured a fixed term position in the sector and felt more challenged as staff are expected to have knowledge of medications and health procedures. I was a trainee dispenser, and would process prescriptions, dispense medications, and help customers with general health enquiries. Becoming a pharmacist appealed and I began another university application, but in the MPharm. I adored working as a dispenser, but when the branch I worked at became very short staffed and the pharmacist resigned, I became quite stressed. The pharmacist’s departure also meant I was unable to send my reference and UCAS were unable to process my application. I was massively disheartened and didn’t want to wait another year to apply. I concluded that workloads meant pharmaceuticals was not for me and felt somewhat lost again.

When did you become interested in health and safety as a career choice?
Health and safety was a major topic of conversation at the pharmacy; particularly in relation to CoSHH and controlled drugs. I never directly engaged with risk assessments or safety paperwork, but I was appointed the SaferCare rep. This meant having meetings with the pharmacist to address safety concerns and discuss any near misses. I guess this is what sparked my interest. The part that fascinated me the most was the legal side. I adore literature, so I relished the prospect ofeviewing nice, big sets of legislation – I liked the challenge of interpreting difficult texts.

I felt health and safety offered a balance between people-interaction and the academic challenge due to the legislation. Most importantly I felt it would help me achieve a better job with prospects.

What steps did you take to pursue the health and safety option?
My fiancé and I were both looking for a change of career at the same time, so it was often the topic of discussion over dinner. His father recommended we both consider a PLA (Personal Learning Account). This is a programme funded by the Welsh Government which allows eligible candidates to obtain the skills and qualifications necessary to change career.

I had a look at the PLA funding, and tried to find something that would help me get a job and supported my aspirations. I secured funding to complete my NEBOSH General Certificate before going on to complete the NEBOSH Construction certificate.

I attended NEBOSH Online, via teams with Delyn Safety and the support the team there provided me was fantastic. My tutor, Mike Smith, even guided me in how to effectively apply for jobs in health and safety after college lessons and his advice soon helped me to get a job at Jennings in June 2022, my current employer.

I really enjoyed both courses and the other students were really engaging. I would actively look forward to the evenings when I did the course, and there was a great camaraderie between us all. The content on construction really fascinated me too, having never really been exposed to it other than with my stepdad’s work as a self-employed builder.

Tell me about your role in your current job at Jennings Building & Civil Engineering? What would you say is the best thing about this job?
100% the people. I was quite worried when I joined as I am a young woman but believe it or not, I faced more stereotyping in a traditional office setting than on site. A lot of the site managers tell me construction is a people industry, and it massively is. I absolutely adore going on site and catching up with the operatives, engineers, and site managers. Everyone is polite, kind, and best of all, funny. Of course, I take my role as a health and safety advisor seriously, but the authenticity you get on site is comparable to none. I really like that there is no puffery, and it’s the most honest industry I’ve worked in – I can go to work knowing everyone at Jennings has my back.

I understand you are currently studying for your NEBOSH Level 6 National Diploma for Occupational Health and Safety Management Professionals with the support from your employer?
Yes! I was going to fund the Diploma myself, by taking out a bank loan. I brought the Diploma up to Danny, my boss, to ask if I could have the time off for the course. I was very flattered when Danny agreed to give me not only the paid time off, but to cover the tuition fees as well, which was a HUGE help in my career progression. I was so elated, and grateful, I have never felt so respected, and I am on track to complete by February 2024.

How have you used your NEBOSH qualifications to help in this role?
I have used the NEBOSH General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety but as Jennings operates in the construction sector my NEBOSH Certificate in Construction Health and Safety has been the biggest help. One of the most applicable aspects of the certificates was not so much the content on risks, control measures and legalities, but the way you need to uphold an attitude on site. I feel that NEBOSH taught me how to find the balance between being assertive with the regulations, but also being realistic with what resources, labour and time frames are provided on site. I like to think I have applied that commercial and pragmatic approach to safety on site and in the office, and embedded the visual leadership that we are encouraged to have, which is very much a Jennings style of working.

How do you feel following this education route has benefited you instead of following the university pathway after your A-levels?
The biggest benefit is the lack of student debt, but also the life experiences I have had. I am also earning-while-learning, as they say, so I can set up a solid CV whilst living my life. Combining learning with working has been advantageous for me financially, as I have started my pension, can save regularly, and more excitingly, can afford to travel. I feel I am getting a real-world education as I can apply NEBOSH directly to my work at Jennings, which, later down the line, will look great to employers as it translates to years of experience and education, rather than just education.

What would you tell your younger self knowing what you know now about your career and education?
So many things! I think the biggest one is if you don’t intend to go to university look at options other than A Levels. Consider going to college part time whilst working and find what you like doing. There is so much pressure on young people to know exactly what they want to do in their careers. I feel we are pushed into making decisions we are not 100% certain of. I would tell myself to go be uncertain and try a bit of everything until you find your niche – even if that means changing jobs every 3-6 months until you do.

Can you give younger people some advice about choosing the right career for them?
Honestly, the advice I would give is have a go at everything and anything and do not commit to further education until you have tried what you are going for. I was set on being a teacher, but when I tried being a teaching assistant, I realised it wasn’t for me. I often imagine what would I do if I had stuck with my original plan, completed my university degree only to discover when I started teaching that I hated it. It would feel like I had wasted four years and landed myself with a huge debt in the process. Young people really need to try and explore what they want to study before they commit to it, so I would say get a job in your interests and have a go. In a way, college provides this as you have work experience and placements.

Of course, I have a bias to health and safety, but I really would recommend it wholeheartedly to young people particularly because it is so versatile. I went into construction health and safety, but you could go into food safety, manufacturing safety, events safety, pharmaceutical safety, the list goes on. I also feel its timeless. Health and safety will always be at the forefront of working life, as it is our duty to keep people safe.

NEBOSH qualifications provide a great foundation for a health and safety career. Even if you are working, they are an option for you because you can study online or with evening classes. I was fortunate that the PLA funded my certificate studies too. My NEBOSH qualifications got me into secure, solid employment and helped me to find my niche. NEBOSH qualifications open a lot of doors for individuals in the UK and internationally and widen the opportunities in employment massively.