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Electric dreams: how college lit the fuse for our dream jobs

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Instead, he wanted to hit the world running, to earn money and follow a dream – dismissed out of hand during a school careers’ chat – of becoming an entrepreneur.

Today the 37-year-old’s smart building technology business, Sagar Smart Home, is sought out by the fantastically wealthy around the world; highflyers with deep pockets who demand the latest technology in their homes, businesses and £100 million superyachts, at the flick of a switch.

Since leaving Langholm for London, Sagar has travelled around the world, with demand for his skill and understanding of how to instal highly sophisticated intelligent electric systems from Paris, Germany, Barcelona to Ibiza and Australia.

The Herald: Richard Sagar receives Dumfries and Galloway College Fellowship of the Year from Alister Jack, Secretary of State for Scotland and college principal, Joanna CampbellRichard Sagar receives Dumfries and Galloway College Fellowship of the Year from Alister Jack, Secretary of State for Scotland and college principal, Joanna Campbell (Image: Dumfries and Galloway College)

Now, having built his business from scratch, his attention has turned to developing a range of intelligent light switches and an AI software platform; the next step towards creating the world’s most intelligent buildings.

It’s a rapidly evolving area, increasingly in demand now for those seeking homes that are connected to the latest technology, and likely to be even more so in the future as smart cities, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence grows.

Yet at school, Sagar had no idea where his career path lay other than knowing that university was definitely not for him.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do in life,” he recalls of his journey through secondary school in Langholm. “Sitting in a classroom was something I did not enjoy; it felt restrictive for me. I felt like I was wasting my time at school.

“So, it didn’t make sense for me to continue that academic journey at university. I didn’t feel like it fitted with my character and my personality.

“I wanted to be earning money straight away,” he adds.

“I came from a single parent household and I knew what it felt like to not have much. I had an urge to provide for myself and have independence.

“Some people see university as that route to independence,” he adds, “but I saw the earning potential of having a trade as the way forward.

“Coming from a small town, the options available tend to be joiner, plumber or electrician and that’s where the list stops.

“At least I knew I didn’t want to be a plumber.”


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The State of Scotland’s Colleges: Find all articles in the series here


He started an apprenticeship in electrical installation at a local firm, splitting his time between the job and studying Electrical Installation SVQ Level 3 at Dumfries and Galloway College.

It gave him the financial freedom he craved – a weekly wage of around £150 a week. But the money in his pocket was only one of the benefits.

At college, his talent and ability to learn fast and problem solve were spotted early on. Before long he had won the SECTT apprentice of the year competition, then both the Electro-technical Modern Apprenticeship Competition (eMac) and UK Skillelectric final in the same year.

In 2009, he represented Team UK at WorldSkills Calgary – a gathering regarded as ‘the Olympic Games of the trades world’. It opened fresh doors, in particular expert-led training that opened his eyes to programming and the computer technology behind smart buildings.

He went on to compete against 32 international competitors, finishing by winning Gold.

With his apprenticeship complete, he quit Langholm for London and prestigious development sites in charge of teams of electricians and then working as in a freelance ‘technical architect’ role, specialising in programming, supplying materials and designs for smart building technology.

He launched Sagar Smart Homes in 2010, specialising in home automation systems: smart controls that “sync” home technology, so actions like dimming the lights, closing curtains or switching on the TV can be done at the touch of a button.

By the time he was 26, and while many of his friends who had gone to university were still on the first rung of the career ladder, he was earning in the region of £60,000 a year and was set to be recognised with an MBE for his role as an ambassador to young people. He received the College Fellowship of the Year in 2022.

College, he says, was fundamental to his career success.

“I felt I was treated very differently there compared to school, there was a level of respect and camaraderie.

“There was a new feeling of freedom, there’s a lot of shared experiences and bonding with people.

“I became very aware of the difference in maturity in someone who went through college process and worked at the same time: you learn a lot of soft skills that you might not experience at university.”

The role he has was never on his radar at school, but college and his apprentice kicked open doors he didn’t know where there.

He adds: “I now have guys in Germany working on a £93m superyacht, and we’ve worked on projects in Australia and Barcelona.

“I get to work on beautiful interiors for people who are extremely discerning, who expect and appreciate the finest of everything in their lives.

“It’s cool stuff.

“I’ve grown my business to go further than problem solving and started designing. I love it.”

College provided the foundation of his success story, he adds.

“I’m very grateful as I look back. I am doing something I genuinely love and am passionate about, the idea of it being work is such a foreign term for me as it’s so rewarding.

“College put me in control of my own career path without pigeon-holing me.”

The Herald: Alan Thurston with his BAFTAs Alan Thurston with his BAFTAs (Image: Contributed)

Film and television can be particularly difficult to break into, and Alan Thurston feared his string of average exam grades might hold him back even further.

Yet he would go on to collect two university degrees, pick up three BAFTAs, and work on programmes for the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, Discovery+ and National Geographic.

“I was in sixth year at high school, I was good at drawing, painting and design, and thought I’d like to get into making films and television production.

“But I didn’t do that well when it came to exams and ended up with three Cs in my Highers.

“I remember people saying what a shame it was, because I had definitely wanted to go to university.”

Much later, Alan discovered he is dyslexic; a factor in how challenging he found exam situations.

With his university dream crushed, he explored the options at Dumfries and Galloway College.

“I thought it would give me a boost,” he recalls. “And then maybe I could go to university later.”

He began with a SCQF Level 6 Visual Communications course. “It had everything I wanted, photography, filming, editing, graphic design, poster making, drawing.

“It was the best choice I could have made.”

He followed it with an HNC in 2010 and then an HND, before completing a BA degree in Applied Enterprise at University of West of Scotland.

He followed that up with a second degree, this time in film and media at the University of Stirling.

Now 31, he works for Glasgow-based documentary producers Tern TV,  and was part of the team to pick up BAFTA awards for Being Gail Porter, The War Next Door: Scotland, and Darren McGarvey’s Addictions.

As a kit-coordinator with responsibility for cameras and prepping equipment for editing, his role takes him around the country.

While there’s constant variety: his current work includes television gardening favourite Beechgrove and a documentary exploring funfairs.

He adds: “At school when I looked at job adverts for the work I wanted to do, I saw they all required you to have a degree – probably just to show you can stick at something for four years.

“If it wasn’t for going to college, I’d have struggled to gain the skills to go on to do a degree, let alone two, and get a job in the TV industry and have three BAFTA wins under my belt.

“College pushed me to be my best.”

College took Chloe Oswald to working with some of the nation’s finest Michelin star chefs and on to sweet success with her own business.

The founder of Chocolatia, an award-winning handcrafted chocolate business based in Forfar, says college gave her with the blend of skills and confidence for work, and then to break out on her own.

The Herald: Former college student Chloe Oswald runs ChocolatiaFormer college student Chloe Oswald runs Chocolatia (Image: Contributed)

She left school in Dunoon without any Highers for a year’s Level 2 Professional Cookery course at Perth College UHI. It triggered a love of patisserie that took her to an HNC and HND at City of Glasgow College.

“I didn’t have much confidence in myself and didn’t think I’d be able to do the written side of the work at college,” she says. “But I had so much support, it turned out to be so much more achievable than I had thought.”

A turning point was the opportunity to test herself in student competitions and in the college kitchen, set up to give students experience of working in a real restaurant with customers.

 

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While her selection for the WorldSkills UK Confectionery and Pâtisserie competitions, considered the ‘Olympic Games’ of trade and skills, provided vital experience and training.

She went on to work with the pastry team at Gleneagles hotel in Auchterarder, and with its 2 Michelin star Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, where her flair for working with chocolate emerged.

While on furlough and seeking a new creative outlet she explored the idea of launching her own luxury chocolate business, Chocolatia.

Within months she had gathered a clutch of impressive awards including a Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Award for Confectionary Product of the Year and seven Great Taste awards on her first attempt.

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Chocolatia went on to be one of only 25 food and drink businesses nominated for a prestigious Golden Fork Award.

“I didn’t even know this was a job or that I could ever be a chocolatier,” she says.

“College was so different from school, I had so many opportunities to try different things at college.”

 

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