Persevering through 200 rejections to find the perfect apprenticeship

Posted on: 8 February, 2024

To celebrate National Apprenticeship Week, we’re profiling each of the shortlisters from this year’s UCEM Built Environment Apprenticeship Awards.


Name: Toby Vowels

Job role: Assistant Building Surveyor

Company: Keltbray Limited

Category: Rising Star

Toby left school after one year of sixth form to become a qualified carpenter. “I didn’t really get on with A-levels in college, so I did an apprenticeship to become a carpenter. I wanted something more office based but the lack of higher education made that difficult.

“I eventually went into estate agency where I got on really well with the valuing side of it and the buy-to-let side, dealing with investors. After that I moved into construction recruitment, where I dealt with building surveyors, project managers and quantity surveyors. I talked to a lot of the surveyors and I started realising there were lots of different routes into the industry.”

During the COVID pandemic, Toby acquired a Higher National Certificate (HNC), while still working full-time, so that he would be able to access higher education in the future.

A highly active person, Toby was immobilised by a back injury for several months in 2022: “I ran the marathon in April, and by September I couldn’t even tie my shoelaces. I was bedridden for months, and when I went back to work my employer of over three years offered no support with my recovery. It gave me the push I needed to quit my job, and look to the future.”

While travelling in South East Asia, Toby decided to look for a role in a company that could enrol him on a building surveying apprenticeship degree. He took to Linkedin, answering every relevant job ad he could find, and reaching out to all his contacts and former clients. “I reckon I got around 200 rejections before a building surveyor partner at RLB saw one of my posts and offered me an interview which I did while in Bali! I started a few weeks after getting back to the UK and I haven’t looked back.”

At first, Toby wasn’t sure how he felt about UCEM’s 100% online model: “It’s all remote, which I didn’t think I would like at first, but the tutors have always made themselves accessible so you always get your questions answered. And because all the lectures are recorded it gives you that buffer, so you can study on any day of the week that suits you.”

Toby has an interest in historic buildings: “I love historic buildings, I love the defect analysis and looking at the history behind it and understanding why a particular building is being preserved. I’m actually doing a project for my course on the apartment block that I live in, which used to be a shipping warehouse. When it’s finished, I’m going to give a copy to everyone who lives in the building. My landlady has even asked to read it!”

Being nominated for the Rising Star award in his first year of study “means a lot” to Toby. “The way in which my life has changed in just a year has been phenomenal. As someone who never thought they could go to university, to now be here and be shortlisted for this award is wonderful.”

Visit the awards webpage >