Lucy Phelps: A day in the life of an Ultra engineer

She excelled at school, fell out of love with study in sixth form and stepped away from the university route to work before an apprenticeship at Ultra caught her attention. Today Lucy Phelps is a qualified mechanical engineering, manager and on her way to an MBA.

By Andrew Merrell  |  Published

For those who know they have potential, want to work for a company that can help them achieve that, and never want that journey to stop, the career to date of Lucy Phelps might just prove an inspiration.

When everyone thought the girl who excelled in her GCSE’s would head for university she surprised them by going to work in retail, before taking another left turn – and seizing the chain of an apprenticeship and career at world-leading aerospace and defence experts Ultra Precision Control Systems.

About the expert –  Lucy Phelps of Ultra Precision Control Systems

Lucy Phelps is a lead quality engineer at Cheltenham-based Ultra Precision Control Systems, a firm that can trace its roots in Gloucestershire back to 1925 when it made domestic radios, before switching to aircraft parts for the RAF during World War II and becoming part of legendary county engineering name Dowty from 1977 to 1992.

Today, the independent FTSE 250 firm is still at the same Arle Court base, part of Ultra Electronics Group, a world-leading manufacturer of products for the aerospace and military sectors, and it has just invested £2 million in its Gloucestershire operations – where it already employs 300 staff.

What school did you go to school?

I went to Lakers School in the Forest of Dean (now Five Acres High School), then sixth form at Wyedean (Sedbury).

Was it always the plan to go from school to become an engineering apprenticeship?

It is funny, I remember when my dad first asked me about GCSEs and what I wanted to do I said I wanted to become a bricklayer. That did not go down well at all!

 I did quite well at school – I got 16 GCSEs – but did not enjoy A-Levels at all and messed up my chances of going to university.

What happened then turned into two years in retail, which I really enjoyed and I learned a lot. It is the hardest job I ever had, but I learned a lot of skills that set me up for life.

I also bought myself a house during that time and was already learning what it was like to have a mortgage, to earn and to manage my money.

Where did the road to becoming an engineer start then?

I got into what is now my career completely backwards. I wanted to learn to be a mechanic. My dream was to work in Formula 1 in a pit crew.

I was talking to someone about becoming a mechanic and about engineering and I think we got our wires crossed and we ended up talking about being a mechanical engineer. But it was their suggestions led me to the doors of Ultra.

What was your parents reaction to a left turn into the world of mechanical engineering?

My mother has been into rallying (motorsport) for a long time. She is a co-driver and really good at it, and my dad has always been into motorbikes. Petrol is in my blood.

I think they were pleased.

So how old were you when you started your apprenticeship?

I was 21. It was hard in some ways, because there I was starting at a lower level than my brother who was going off to university at the time, and I was earning relatively less than some of my friends, but I just had to tell myself it was going to be worth it. And it felt right.

I studied at Gloucestershire College for my BTec and then at GET (Gloucestershire Engineering Training) for my HND (Higher National Diploma) and HNC (Higher National Certificate).

What did you find so beneficial about the apprenticeship route?

You are on a career path right from the off. You might not earn a huge amount to start with, but you are among people who will teach you so much – and you will grow up fast. You don’t only learn the skills that apply to your job, you learn a work ethic and social skills and in the longer run that will give you a huge advantage.

When you talk to friends, peers, those who might have gone off to university and taken another route. What are your thoughts about the path you took now?

At the time I was older than other apprentices, friends were partying hard and studying, my younger brother was off doing higher level at university than I was starting on apprenticeship, but now I realise I was in a pretty good place and I am in an even better position now.

What about being a woman in what might have been traditionally thought of as a man’s world?

It is predominantly men still, but it is not dominated by men and it is changing all the time. Many of the senior staff here at Ultra are women. It is just how Ultra is. If you have the talent, they want to encourage you no matter who you are or where you have come from.

If you work hard, your efforts will be recognised by the business.

You’re no longer an apprentice, of course. What do you do now – and are you back studying again too?

I’m currently doing an MBA at the University of Gloucestershire. I was offered a degree course right away by Ultra, but I decided I didn’t want to do that at the time.

But, after a while, I realised I wanted my career to go in a particular direction and spoke to Ultra about that. Its approach is that is you have the drive and the will, it will do all it can to help you succeed.

I am a lead quality engineer now, look after a team and that includes the next generation of apprentices too.

How does the future look?

I have just been promoted to head of quality assurance, which I am really pleased about - so the future is looking even better!

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