Combined practical and theoretical learning key to progress


Having become a Chartered Engineer at 27 and having been appointed Head of Engineering Support at Arriva UK Bus at 34, James Higlett has reached some high-profile career milestones at a relatively young age.

A natural leader, James has worked in Europe for Arriva Group in various managerial roles – mainly in strategy and innovation – before coming back home to the UK engineering operation.

After finishing school, James chose the academic route, firstly at college in Farnborough where he took an advanced GNVQ in Automotive Engineering, before moving on to the University of Surrey to study Mechanical Engineering with Business Management at degree level. A sound understanding of the practical side came after, when in the workshop at Arriva.

“The most successful engineers in the years ahead will have a combination of academic qualifications and practical experience,” said James.

“I suppose I was successful because I was willing to engage in the practical understanding of PSV maintenance when I got to Arriva, and I combined that with the knowledge I had to then move forward. Obtaining a sound understanding of operational maintenance is fundamental to enabling the successful progression into more senior strategic roles,” added James.

Arriva is reaping the rewards of putting its apprentices on a similar path by identifying suitable candidates to take through its graduate training programme and, ultimately, on to management roles.

“One of the successful ways we’re seeing for engineers to rise in our organisation is by taking apprentices who have recently finished their apprenticeship and putting through the same training programme as our graduates – giving them opportunity to become well-rounded individuals who understand the business. It’s a fairly new scheme that’s been running for about three years and it’s becoming equally popular as just taking graduates out of university.”

This new approach has proved rewarding for the candidate, whose career can be mapped and structured, the organisation, which prospers from continuity, and a workforce that is openly presented with a route towards promotion.

“If you’re a young engineer coming into our industry and have aspirations to reach senior management, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with starting an apprenticeship; it gives you a brilliant foundation, a great understanding of the business and what engineering means to the industry to start with.”

A desire to become a Chartered Engineer had been present for some time before, eight years ago, James took the final step and achieved a life-long ambition. In doing so, he joined only a select group of exceptional engineers in accomplishing that feat before their 30th birthday.

“From an aspirational point of view, I really wanted to achieve the CEng because it’s the highest engineering qualification you can get. Also, if you look at the rail industry and many other industries, it’s become more or less a standard; it’s not a standard in the bus industry yet, but I think it will be one day – it’s definitely worth having,” said James.

Now, James is enjoying being part of the bus and coach sector that is thriving at the forefront of technological development, especially with low and zero emission vehicles.

“A lot of change is driven by legislation and by local authorities. Buses are a huge part of the transport network, especially in city centres, so one way of addressing clean air is clean buses. The demand has made the bus a leader in that respect. It is unusual because we usually inherit technology from the HGV industry; this time we’re pioneering,” he concluded.