“The apprenticeship programme gives you all the tools you need to progress in life, whether you stay in football or not.”
That’s the view of former Millwall scholar Lewis West, who spent six and a half years in the Academy system before being released at the age of 18 in 2019.
Using many of the skills he developed at the Club to adapt to a new working environment, the 21-year-old is now almost a fully qualified Network Rail Engineer, with big ambitions to progress in the industry.
“I never expected to go down this pathway,” he confesses. “When I was growing up, I just loved football – and I still do. Playing football was the only thing I envisaged myself doing as a kid.
“But if I’m honest, I feel like being released was the best thing to happen to me. I know it’s easy to say now and it was a massive disappointment at the time, but I don’t think football was the correct route for me. I think I was ready for the next step in my life and I’ve got a secure career now, with a future that I’m very positive about.
“My time in the Academy, particularly those two years as an apprentice, taught me so much and it’s probably taken me until the last year or so to truly realise that.
“Your social and communications skills improve a lot, so I’ve learned how to speak to different people, judge different situations and how to work in a team, which I’ve used in my role at Network Rail.
“Football is quite a cutthroat environment. You have to be open to learning and taking onboard honest feedback – positive and negative – and that’s also helped me. It’s taught me things I didn’t know about myself and given me the foundations to develop once I’ve left, which I’m grateful for.”
After leaving the Lions, West initially spent over a year working on a building site to keep himself occupied before applying for an apprenticeship with Network Rail. Since starting in October 2020, he has made great strides and will move into a full-time position at the completion of his qualifications.
He says: “I left Millwall with D* grades in my BTEC and NVQ, so I could’ve gone to university and I started to look at my options, but my auntie works for TfL (Transport for London) and she gave me a lot of information about the industry.
“There are lots of job opportunities and she’s progressed up from being an apprentice, so there’s an internal promotion pathway within the company. There are also lots of branches that you can go down and you can even work in different countries.
“Currently, I’m a maintenance engineer, so I look after sections of track and keep it in a good condition for trains to run through. I never realised until I started working on the tracks just how much goes into running trains – it’s a very complex structure.
“The route I work on, the last train runs at half 1 in the morning, so I can’t go on track until after that time, and then it’s popular for freight trains, so sometimes I have to jump off track for 10 or 15 minutes to let one pass. I’m on track maybe two or three hours a night, so it’s not a long shift, but it’s very productive.”
Although he doesn’t claim to share the same enthusiasm for trains that is showcased by TikTok and Instagram sensation Francis Bourgeois, West admits he’s become a railway fanatic.
“I’ve seen a lot of his clips – I’m not quite besotted by them like him!” he laughs. “It’s where I see my long-term future and I absolutely love it, but maybe not that much!
“The infrastructure is huge and there’s so much that goes on. There are loads of teams and departments and that’s another thing that really interested me.
“Even though I’m doing my apprenticeship with PWay, I can move into another team if I fancy doing something else within the railway. It’s quite common and you cross-discipline, so I’ve been working with different teams.
“There’s S&T for signalling and telecoms, ETM (Electric Track Maintenance) who deal with all the live rails, the tech team which does all the structures and gauging, or the welders.”
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West’s career pathway is just one example of the vast range of opportunities available to former Academy players, and he believes a clear and determined mindset has been key to his success.
He explains: “Being released doesn’t define your life and what you can go on to achieve. It’s easy to get a bit disheartened and think it’s the end of the world, but it’s all down to you and how you respond. I accepted the decision and used that as fuel to make a career for myself. I decided to make it a new start, not the end.
“I’ve never been someone that’s just settled for anything, so I want to go as high as I can. I’m not exactly sure where I want to go with it, but I know I want to progress into management.
“I love having tools in my hand and being out on the tracks, so I think a goal for the next few years is to become a team leader at PWay and then as I look further into the future, eventually becoming a section manager or TME (track maintenance engineer) who oversee the depot. That’s a very hard job and it’s a long way off, but it’s something to aspire to.
“I would be open to going abroad as well. You can potentially get to do a job you love in an amazing part of the world, so I could see myself doing that in the years to come, but at the moment, I just want to focus on working my way up at Network Rail.
“Ultimately, I’m progressing well and enjoying what I’m doing, I wouldn’t change anything about my journey. I’m very thankful for my time at Millwall and the apprenticeship programme is one of the best things I’ve done – without it, I’m not sure what I would’ve done or where I would’ve gone.”