A few years ago, Barry Donnelly from Dungiven could never have imagined he’d be graduating with a BEng Hons degree in Building Services with Sustainable Energy at South West College. However, now he stands proud, reflecting on his journey and the role that the apprenticeship route played in achieving this accomplishment. As part of NI Apprenticeship Week, which is currently being celebrated throughout the province, Barry, now a Senior Resident Building Services Engineer, shared his story and expressed gratitude towards the apprenticeship route for paving the way to his success.

Led by the Department of the Economy, NI Apprenticeship Week is an annual week-long celebration, which runs from 5 to 9 February 2024 and aims to raise the profile of apprenticeships across Northern Ireland by bringing together partners including local councils, employers, universities, further education colleges and private training providers.

Barry who grew up around the Coalisland area, said: “After working as a qualified Plumber and Mechanical supervisor for over 20 years, I was given the opportunity to work as a mechanical resident engineer within a building services engineering design consultancy. I took the chance to step out of my comfort zone and jumped into the role with my eyes wide open, due to the difference in working environments.

‘I soon realised that I would have to further educate myself if I was going to progress my career further, so I decided to enrol on the Foundation Degree in Architectural Engineering and Energy as a Higher Level Apprentice at South West College. This gave me the opportunity to continue working in my role at Cundall and study one day per week at the same time.”

Barry's dedication and commitment to his studies were recognized when he was shortlisted for the NI Higher Level Apprentice of the Year category at the esteemed NI Apprenticeship Awards in 2021. Excelling in his studies, Barry successfully progressed to the BEng Hons degree in Building Services with Sustainable Energy, where he once again achieved exemplary grades as well as ‘Scholar of the year’ at South West Colleges 2023 Higher Education Graduation Ceremony.

Reflecting on his return to study after a 20-year gap, Barry said, “Returning to study after such a long time, I was sceptical, to say the least; I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. But all in all, I would say it was enjoyable; there was an element of freedom with assignments that let me express what I was learning and the experience I had gained through life. Final grades also helped with the enjoyment of the course. It has been an excellent opportunity that has allowed me to progress my academic profile and embed a wealth of knowledge into my professional role.’

Barry highlighted the advantages of pursuing higher education close to home, and praised his positive experience at South West College.

He stated, “Although it wasn’t something I initially thought about, cost was a benefit. It was considerably cheaper to attain my degree over University, this was further complemented with the 2 year Higher Level Apprenticeship that was subsidised by the Department of Economy.

“However, the main benefit to me was that the college had the route required for me to move forward, I had enquired at the Universities but there was no viable opportunity for me to progress, as my previous education grades were not as required for admission. Additionally, the fact that lecturers and Tutors are from industry background is also beneficial.”

With the completion of his degree, Barry has now earned a qualification that holds substantial weight in his industry. His next step is to apply for chartership through institutions such as CIBSE or CIPHE, further solidifying his expertise and professional standing.

For those considering a career change, seeking progression or entry into a new sector, or looking to earn and learn, Barry highly recommends South West College and the apprenticeship route.

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