Millie Mcleod knows that there is a difference between being young and being inexperienced.

When Ms Mcleod, 20, goes to work at BAE Systems – a technology-focussed defense corporation – she brings insight that helps even her most experienced colleagues become more efficient.

She also serves as a reverse mentor to a senior-level director at BAE's Glasgow shipyard. They have regular conversations in which Ms Mcleod takes the lead, sharing her thoughts on the workplace, new ideas and best practices.

As part of her job, Ms Mcleod trains with industry technicians and is close to earning project management qualifications that could open a "career of careers" within the company.

Ms Mcleod is a second-year project management apprentice with BAE and QA Glasgow.

While she gives some credit for her confidence and sense of worth at work to the culture at BAE, she said that she is most thankful for her apprenticeship.

Read more: Why the new generation of apprentices are a cut above

Her excitement for her job is palpable. But she knows that if she hadn't been made aware of the apprenticeship pathway in school, she might still be searching for her next step.

"Going into the last year of high school I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go on to university or do an apprenticeship.

"Neither of my parents went to university and they both had successful careers, so there was never any pressure to do that which helped me keep an open mind."

Ms Mcleod said that her parents and her business teacher made her aware of apprenticeship opportunities.

Many students don't get that same level of exposure, however, and they can miss out on potentially fulfilling careers.

Part of her job allows Ms Mcleod to help change that.

"Within the company, I've been to schools to deliver information about apprenticeships and get the word out. 

"If my mum and dad had been to uni, I might have had a different outlook because it wasn't as well-advertised.

"It's important to have the conversations about all options because when you're in school most of the teachers have a degree so there might be some level of bias.

"But I wasn't entirely set on a degree, and I didn't want to be locked into four years if I wasn't sure."

Instead, Ms Mcleod is "earning and learning" through her apprenticeship.

She hasn't given up on furthering her education, because a key part of an apprenticeship is that it allows workers to earn qualifications while staying employed.

The Herald: Nadia Savage is Millie Mcleod's reverse mentor, and said that apprenticeships bring a valuable perspective to the workforce. Nadia Savage is Millie Mcleod's reverse mentor, and said that apprenticeships bring a valuable perspective to the workforce. (Image: BAE Systems)

Nadia Savage, Business Operations Director with BAE, oversees Naval shipbuilding and design at BAE's Glasgow shipyard and said that Ms Mcleod is typical of the type of value that apprentices bring to her business.

"When you come into a new space and new place, you can't help but ask the question 'Why do you do it like that?'

"It's the kind of question that apprentices ask, and with fresh intake every year it asks as a spark for the people already there. 

"Apprentices are a constant nudge to check if what we're doing is the best it can be."

In Ms Savage's Scottish Naval Ships sector alone, BAE has taken on almost 300 apprentices this year.

"That's three hundred nudges. So there is an absolute business benefit in the diversity of thought and new skills."

She said that apprenticeships are also effective at battling the UK's current shortages in the skilled workforce. Reports from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2023 found that less than one-fifth of 25-64 year-olds in the UK have a vocational qualification.

Read more: How upskilling workers puts Scottish firms on right track for growth

It's a trend that is taking a toll on British industries and experts say could take years to reverse. But Ms Savage said that apprenticeships, apart from the benefits to individual employees and businesses, can help to plug this gap.

"When we bring through our apprentices, they tend to stay with us.

"Our company has a roughly ninety-four per cent retention rate of our apprentices. It gives us stability, and growing our own allows us to tackle that skilled workforce shortage.

"But it's not loyalty for loyalty's sake. There is a career of careers available to apprentices once they are with us."

BAE's retention rate isn't out of the ordinary: Skills Development Scotland reports that 92% of modern apprentices stay in work once they earn their qualifications. 

And the opportunities for internal promotion or reskilling mean that apprentices aren't trapped in one job.

This breadth of opportunities was another selling point for Ms Mcleod. Whereas starting a university degree programme may have locked her onto a certain track, she feels she has a wide range of jobs open to her.

"Even just within the project management qualification, there is a multitude of different departments that handle different aspects."

In addition to the nationwide workforce shortages, industries have internal disparities that they are attempting to solve. 

Read more: University looks to give girls a boost into STEM

Bringing more women and young girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers is a longstanding goal for schools, universities and colleges, and businesses themselves.

As Ms Savage explained, a diverse workforce – whether that means variations in age, gender, or ethnicity – brings new ideas and new perspectives that can drive progress.

One solution, she said, is to put people like Ms Mcleod in front of young people to show that there are opportunities for everyone.

"Right at grassroots, whether it's primary schools or local secondary schools, we really look to nurture those relationships. 

"We try to help all backgrounds into routes of employment. Not just because it's the right thing to do for them, but it's beneficial to us."

Ms Mcleod represents a very different industrial landscape than the one Ms Savage entered in 1991 when she began her male-dominated apprenticeship with British Rail. With luck, it will only become more inclusive, she said.

If Ms Mcleod had any advice for young people who are still unsure of what to do after school, she said it's to know that there is no "right" way to launch a career.

"Whenever we do outreach programmes at schools, we have feedback right away from teachers about students who are excited to apply.

"Seeing somebody who you can identify with and relate to in these workplaces makes it real that you can do it too."