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When Joshua Uwadiae saw a notice on his college message board about a Microsoft apprenticeship, he had no idea he would later class that moment as one of the most important things ever to happen to him.
Now, Uwadiae is the founder and CEO of WeGym, but at the time, he was trying to turn his life around after falling in with the wrong crowd.
“Fortunately for me, I stumbled across an apprenticeship poster on the walls of my college,” he says. “One great marketing guy hooked me up and he happened to put a poster in my college. It was for an apprenticeship.”
Growing up in Hackney, Uwadiae quickly found himself getting into trouble and was expelled from school at 15 years old. He puts this down to a combination of “Hackney culture” and feeling he had no male role models growing up.
Unfortunately, this meant the role models Uwadiae did find were “not so positive”, including “people from the streets” who became a negative influence on his life.
“You end up seeking a community, and it either ends up being positive or negative,” he says. “Realistically, you just grow up with your friends. It’s the guys you used to play football with, or it’s the people in your school, and the way we became involved in what you would call “gang crime” was actually by accident.”
There is a lack of diversity in the technology sector, as well as hundreds of thousands of jobs to fill, but very few people from less advantageous socio-economic backgrounds are given the opportunity to pursue these roles.
The importance of role models
Sadly, Uwadiae is not the only person in this situation, highlighting the importance of role models in encouraging young people into education, technology careers, and down better paths in general.
“Positive stories usually really help; positive stories you can relate to that has come from the other side is really important,” he says.
But people also need to want to change and push forward. “I didn’t just change, I was faced with the reality of my choices,” says Uwadiae. “That, mixed with some positive role models, propelled me to a better life.”
Read more about technology apprenticeships
Once he was expelled, Uwadiae says he realised he was at the “bottom of the barrel”, and after seeking some more positive influences and mentors, decided to get an education at college, which is where he first made an active decision to pursue tech.
“I guess you could say I was a bit naughty,” says Uwadiae. “I found myself pulled in the wrong direction and not getting involved in schoolwork.”
At 16, he was asked by a pupil referral unit what he would want to study at college, and he realised he’d never thought about it before. “I chose IT because I felt comfortable with it,” he says. “At home, I was the kid that set up the modem; I was the kid who played computer games and I could type fast.”
“It felt natural. Out of all of the options I was given, computing was the one I felt like I could get on in.”
After his first year on the Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) IT course, the decision about whether or not to follow it up with university was fast approaching, but all Uwadiae didn’t see the need to pursue that path.
“I didn’t want to go to university; I wanted to take my skills elsewhere and actually get started in a job in technology,” he says.
But when Uwadiae looked into starting work straight away, he discovered the disconnect between skills students are taught and the skills firms need. Employers wanted too many skills, which left him feeling too far behind.
An Olympic opportunity
At this point, Uwadiae saw Microsoft’s poster and decided to drop out of his course to do the advertised apprenticeship, but before his enrolment date, he spent the summer of 2012 working for an IT director as part of the Olympic Games.
This is where he began to learn the value of having experience and running at problems headfirst, seeing his manager at the time as a “huge mentor”.
The experience solidified his decision to tackle the Microsoft apprenticeship as opposed to go to university. “I’ll never forget the comment he [his IT manager] made, which was ‘you can either get an armful of experience or an armful of qualifications’ and that just really resonated with me. I just wanted to do it, to go out and get the experience.” says Uwadiae.
His apprenticeship was with Microsoft partner firm eCourier.co.uk, a “super cool” technology startup which has since been bought out, but much like many young people moving from education to the workplace, Uwadiae says he had to learn how to be part of an official work environment.
“In hindsight, I didn’t really know how to be an employee. In my mind, I honestly thought I was a model apprentice” he says.
In reality, Uwadiae challenged the workplace, doing things like trying to change the company admin password to test the firm’s security.
These “silly keen stunts” are common amongst younger workers, who are continually disrupting the workplace and expecting more from the technology available in their offices.
Whilst working his way up in the business, Uwadiae was nominated for the Microsoft Apprentice of the Year Award, in which he came runner up.
He eventually became eCorier’s head of technology, in charge of 80-100 employees, having grown and been trained through the business.
When he reached the point where he was recruiting more talent into the business, he began to think more about his decision to do the Microsoft apprenticeship as opposed to go to university.
“It felt weird to interview graduates who were a few years older than me,” he says. “I would have been there if I didn’t do an apprenticeship.”
Is UCAS broken?
Although it didn’t feel significant to him at the time, Uwadiae began to realise how much experience he had gained from doing an apprenticeship, as well as being ahead of the graduates he was now interviewing.
But if it hadn’t been for the poster in his college, he would not have known about alternatives to university. Other tech apprentices have said they had to Google alternatives to university, and Uwadiae says the college careers advisor didn’t mention apprenticeships to him.
Apprenticeships can often be seen as a less valid route into a career than university by parents or teachers, and Uwadiae said his family moved to the UK with the intention of sending him and his siblings to university.
But he argues that UCAS is “fundamentally broken” as its only incentive is to make sure people enrol into universities, so people are not informed of other routes into careers.
“To my college, I’m a failure,” says Uwadiae. “On paper, I do not contribute to their success metrics because a school is measured by whether or not you go to university. Commercially, why would a school do anything that doesn’t contribute to their KPIs? Their KPIs suggest going to university is what spells success.”
The government is trying to shift this idea and encourage more people into apprenticeships, as well as promote an increase in firms offering apprenticeships through initiatives such as the Apprenticeship Levy.
After a few years with eCourier.co.uk, Uwadiae went on to start his own digital business, WeGym, a “technology-driven fitness brand” which helps people to find cheaper and more convenient ways to work out and stay fit.
Encouraged by his own experience of working in tech, he says people in technology roles can be very unhealthy as they don’t move around a lot; and found he couldn’t afford a personal trainer, there wasn’t a gym near his work and he couldn’t find friends to go to the gym with.
He developed WeGym, a digital platform which helps to connect people with personal trainers to book group personal training sessions, thus making them cheaper.
“We’re all about using technology and the internet to make personal training accessible to the mass market,” he says. “Supply is crumbling but demand is thriving.”
Uwadiae is now looking to hire his own apprentices for the business. Now he’s the CEO of his own company, Uwadiae says the difference in his life and the impact his choice to pursue his apprenticeship has made is tangible. “I’m in a different place,” he says. “My life has changed.”