I imagined that life would be a lot like The Thick of It – becoming a civil service apprentice

Teale Cunningham is an economic analyst in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. His role is part of the Government Economic Service Degree Apprenticeship Programme

By Civil Service World

02 Aug 2022

Teale Cunningham – apprentice, Defra, London

When and why did you become a civil service apprentice?

I became interested in economics at sixth form due to the way it can help solve global concerns such as climate change. The media coverage of the EU referendum, which brought the political world into the limelight, made me realise that the civil service would be a great place to make a difference. 

I started looking for opportunities and saw an advert on Twitter for the Government Economic Service Degree Apprenticeship Programme – a brand new apprenticeship enabling anyone to become a government economist with just three A-Levels or equivalent qualifications. It seemed like the perfect fit! I started in September 2019 as part of the very first cohort.

What did you do before becoming a civil service apprentice?

Before becoming a civil service apprentice, I primarily spent my time trying to remember the process for DNA replication. I was previously at the Bishop’s Stortford High School studying A-Level economics, maths and biology.

Did you know much about the civil service before you joined – and how does it compare to your preconceptions?

I imagined that life in politics would be a lot like in Yes, Minister and The Thick of It.

On my first day I actually told my line manager how surprisingly calm the office was compared the world I had imagined – to quite a bit of laughter. 

However, my biggest surprise was how supportive everyone in the civil service is, no matter their seniority. It’s a great environment for professional development – particularly as an apprentice.

Tell us what you do and how it helps citizens?

I work as an economic analyst modelling policy and economic scenarios on a Computable General Equilibrium model – please don’t switch off yet!

I’m based in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so I primarily look at how policy changes involving food and agricultural sectors (e.g. new trade deals) affect businesses like farms, consumers (i.e. all of us) and the environment including carbon emissions.

Policy changes almost always create winners and losers. I try and identify who those will be and what the government could do to make sure those who lose out have other, equal opportunities to prosper.

How did your role change over the pandemic? 

Like many others, I worked remotely during the pandemic – though my university study had always been delivered through distanced learning.

My role at the time – supporting the transformation of the UK farming industry – started to focus on the impact of the pandemic on farms. While markets adjusted to this incredible shift from restaurants and cafes to take aways and supermarkets, it was vital to ensure farms were able to continue operating and supply food to the country.

Having this sense of purpose helped me persevere through the sudden lifestyle changes which the pandemic imposed on us all.

Can you see yourself staying on in the civil service, or using the skills you’ve learnt to explore other opportunities?

The civil service offers a wide variety of opportunities for when I complete my apprenticeship in Summer 2023. These range from promotion, to becoming more specialised in trade and international economics, to leaving economics altogether for another civil service profession.

If I do end up leaving the civil service, I feel like I will be in a good position given the fantastic opportunities I’ve had. I had not expected to develop so quickly – I have briefed ministers, analysed policy and markets and modelled parts of the economy! So I’m very grateful for what I’ve been able to do here in such a short space of time. 

This profile is part of a series looking at the huge diversity of people and roles that make up the modern civil service. Read more here

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