Smashing Stereotypes: Craig Illstone

From apprentice to supervisor and mentor

Craig Illstone,
Maintenance Supervisor, 3M

Craig started his career as an apprentice mechanical engineer at global, science-based technology company, 3M, and has now come full circle helping others to grow.

As a maintenance supervisor at 3M’s Atherstone plant in Warwickshire, my day-to-day role involves leading a team of 19 engineers, specialists and apprentices who look after all the machines that produce the company’s premium abrasive products.

My job involves maintaining the machines and ensuring that we get the most out of them.

In 2020, I was one of just four 3M employees globally to receive a Plant Engineering Outstanding Achievement award. I gained this award for my contribution to ‘driving and owning the engineering road map’ by anticipating and reacting to maintenance issues at the plant.

This award also recognised my leadership skills. As well as a supervisor, I act as a coach and mentor to my team.

I’ve been very lucky to have great mentors who have supported me and encouraged me to progress. Now that I’m a supervisor myself, it’s a huge full circle moment for me. I love being able to do the same for my colleagues, and see them develop in their careers.

I joined Atherstone, which is near to my home in Nuneaton, 17 years ago when I secured a mechanical and electrical engineering apprenticeship with 3M.

Back then, there weren’t as many apprenticeships available and 40 people applied for just two roles. I did enjoy school, but always preferred the practical subjects. Taking the apprenticeship route was a no-brainer for me, as it provided me with a hands-on experience. I’ve always learnt better by ‘doing’.

I spent the first year at a local college studying for NVQ (national vocational qualifications) and Higher National Certificate qualifications, working at the plant in the holidays to learn machine skills. In my second year, I started working shifts at 3M and went to college one day a week.

I shadowed other technicians for a year and this was a great way to not only build on my knowledge and skills, but it helped me to decide whether mechanical engineering was something I genuinely liked and wanted to pursue.

My advice for anyone who wants to apply for an apprenticeship is that, even though a company must decide whether you are right for them, it is just as important to take the  opportunity to figure out whether the career route is right for you, too! Only then will you get the most out of it.

I spent eight years as a shift technician before becoming a shift team leader. This was my first big step up and I decided to return to studying – this time for a degree in combined engineering – which was funded by 3M. It was tough as my working days (combining shifts with study at Coventry University) were long, but it was worth it when I graduated.

Life is easier now that I work regular hours and this gives me more time to spend with my partner doing the things we enjoy, like travelling, together.

Looking back, I can say that my apprenticeship helped me grow both professionally and personally. I have gained so much knowledge from the colleagues I’ve worked with and this has been hugely inspirational to me throughout my career. I hope by sharing my #SmashingStereotypes story I can show that there are varied routes into careers in science.

Follow a career that you are passionate about and remember – you don’t always need a university degree for it.

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