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Homepage / Why I chose the Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship

Why I chose the Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship


“Before I came to sustainability, I didn’t consider myself a ‘green’ person,” reflects Cranfield Level 7 Apprenticeship student Nicola Coles. “I thought sustainability was a discipline on its own.

“But, since studying for the Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship at Cranfield, I’ve started to recognise that sustainability is about ‘life: version 2’ – it’s how we live and do everything. So, I think in a way a career in sustainability is unavoidable for us all because, eventually, sustainability will permeate every discipline.”

For Nicola, Phorum Director at pharmaceuticals network BioPhorum, deciding to study for a sustainability qualification started out as a quest for new knowledge to support her in her work with leading pharmaceuticals firms looking to enhance their sustainability. But, in the Cranfield Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship, she found a programme that combined this immediate upskilling need with feeding her long-held desire to gain a Master’s qualification.

A collaboration of biopharmaceutical companies working on operational excellence projects, BioPhorum had established a sustainability collaboration forum, and Nicola needed the knowledge and skills to lead it.

“Our model has always been that our members are the technical experts who drive the conversation, and we provide the safe, pre-competitive space and platform for them to do that,” she said.

“So, when I was working on a technical project and the group decided they wanted to set up a sustainability collaboration, we entered into it in the same spirit that they would come with the expertise and drive it.

“However, it quickly became apparent that they were looking to BioPhorum to provide some leadership and support, because they didn’t have the internal expertise. That’s when I decided I needed to go out and gain some knowledge and skills to support them on their journey, to give me the confidence that I was focusing on the material issues for them.”

Why Cranfield? 

Nicola discovered Cranfield’s Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship, which combined the learning she was looking for with the opportunity to fulfil her long-held desire to gain a Master’s degree. An added bonus was the fact the course could be part-funded through the Apprenticeship Levy.

“Before I found the Cranfield course, I did a few sustainability learning labs with another institution, each lasting a few days at a time,” she remembers. “I enjoyed them, but felt like everything was a bit ethereal, when what I was looking for was something applied.

“I really liked the fact that Cranfield was connected to industry, and its philosophy that everything had to be applied, so you weren’t learning theory for theory’s sake. The course offered everything I was looking for in terms of content, and the fact it was a Level 7 apprenticeship, and I could gain a Master’s degree at the end of it was fantastic.

“I’d always wanted to do a Master’s, but the timing was never right. I’d never imagined doing a Master’s degree-level apprenticeship would be something that would be available to me.”

“The fact the course was predominantly online really worked for me,” she continued. “It made it possible to study alongside work and spending time with my family. The weekly face-to-face allowed me to get to know people and created a camaraderie. I know I can always throw a question out to the group, and I’ll get an answer.”

Applying her learning to her current role at BioPhorum

Just a year into her two-and-a-half-year course, Nicola is already applying her learning at work to the benefit of BioPhorum and the organisations with which it works.

 “I’m really enjoying all of the apprenticeship content, and everything we’ve learned I’ve been able to apply to something that I’m doing at work. In some areas, I’ve gained confidence that my instincts were correct, and in others I’m learning completely new things, but overall, everything is coming together to provide me with what I need.”

“The initial module around biodiversity helped me set everything in context, and I have been able to use elements of the learning in our outreach and engagement work. The materiality assessment module was really powerful and has enabled me to think a bit more freely about the total impact that our organisation could have beyond just the individual service that it provides. And having to work out a product carbon footprint was an excellent learning exercise to prepare me for some work we are doing on harmonising an approach to product carbon footprint.

“I also made a valuable connection with one of the guest speakers from industry and used the tool and practice she introduced us to in a piece of work I was doing.”

“We’ve now adopted sustainability as one of our core goals within BioPhorum, so it’s clear to the business that my apprenticeship is having a positive impact.”

Working with pharmaceuticals manufacturers and their supply chain on sustainability has its challenges, as Nicola explains. “I think it is fair to say that pharmaceuticals are behind agrochemicals and beauty in terms of its approach to sustainability,” she says. “But it is accelerating much faster into a state of maturity than those industries did. That’s partly because it has the learning from those that have gone before, but also the pharmaceuticals industry has more resources.

“We’ve now got several chief executives publicly talking about the connection between climate change, global health and pharmaceuticals – about the dichotomy of the industry’s contribution to emissions which are driving the environmental impacts that are negatively affecting global health. That’s a big step forwards.”

Advice to others considering an apprenticeship

“Just do it,” she asserts. “Even if you’re later on in your career like me, it will give you a confidence; a richness. As much as I have gained new skills, it has also helped me to consolidate the knowledge and skills I already had, and to apply those in a different context. It’s applied – it’s not all theory – so, if you’re looking to integrate your academic experience with your work experience, it’s a fantastic course for that.”

And a career in sustainability?

“I can honestly say this has been the most interesting part of my career to date,” she says. “It really stretches your mindset, your technical skills, your soft skills, your appreciation of daily occurrences.”

“I’ve now got a really interesting job doing what I love with a really great group of people. I’ve got investment in my education in a space that’s really connected and aligned to the work I’m doing, and it just feels like everything is finally slotting into place.”

To find out more about the Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship (with Sustainability MSc) at Cranfield University, you can book a one-to-one meeting with a member of our team here or reach out via email.

Cranfield School of Management

Written By: Hayley Rook

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