After Hurtwood: Tom Barnett – Sound Technician turned Naval Weapons Engineer

Updated: Jun 25, 2019



One of the inevitable elements of our contemporary world, we are told, is that many of us will switch careers at least once in our working lives. Indeed, for today’s school leavers the expectation is that they will alter course more than once.


It was intriguing therefore when I heard back from Tom Barnett who left Hurtwood in 2013, and, after an interesting and successful spell as a sound and lighting engineer, now finds himself in the Royal Navy as a Weapons Engineer. Here was something different! An almost immediate and highly efficient phone chat followed – in Tom’s lunchbreak – as he traced the journey and the rationale behind his career path.


So back to basics: he left Hurtwood with an interesting portfolio of A Levels: Maths, Physics and Music Tech, the latter subject being the fundamental draw that brought him to the school. He spent ‘loads of time’ in the theatre and loved his work in the studios, recalling all the help and encouragement that he got from Guy and Dave, and has heard that his coursework is still occasionally used for other students!


Within a week of leaving he found himself at the National Theatre; having applied ‘on a whim’, he was lucky enough to secure an apprenticeship as a sound technician, instead of taking a gap year to decide on a university and degree course. His enthusiasm for this route is unqualified, and he refers more broadly to all kinds of training on the job routes.



Back to the National, he found himself very much thrown in at the deep end, swiftly taking over someone’s role in their absence. Tough, but ‘that’s how you learn’, he acknowledges. Alas, his specific apprenticeship no longer exists, due it seems to some of the issues that he had to grapple with, but, he advises, there are plenty of opportunities in other departments, and recommends further investigation for anyone interested. The year gave both the technical skills and the vital contacts to launch himself into the world of theatre work, and he soon found himself heavily involved in the Chichester Theatre, doing ‘three or four summer seasons there’. The shows included “Guys and Dolls’ and “Half a Sixpence”, and most moved up to the West End. Did he move with them? No, he tells me. The challenge that he loved was getting the shows into production rather than the duller task of sustaining performance, sometimes over a number of years. He did work in the West End, however, and one show at the Arts Theatre that he particularly enjoyed, “Beyond the Fence”, about a computer writing a successful musical. Sounds like the challenge itself was central.


Back at Chichester, he had a great relationship with the Head of Sound and he also loved the team he worked with. Any tips? Plenty, it seems: ‘So much is about who you know rather than what you know.’ Tricky? Well once you have the entrée, work on ‘your social skills… Learn fast. Master a task first time round. Be enthusiastic and flexible.’ Hard, hard work then, clearly. But, he adds, don’t overwork: ‘Take time off when you can. Don’t take every job.’ Sounds like once you get a good reputation, word of mouth will keep the work coming.



So, now the big question: why the extraordinary career change? With an imminent shift to ‘Sound Number 1’ and possibly even Sound Design work on the horizon, he took a deep breath and made a very grown-up decision. A one-year choice post-Hurtwood had turned into a head-on career, and Tom felt if he kept going that would indeed be his route ‘for life’. The challenge of a degree was still very much in the frame, using his wider and, as yet, untapped skills, and so, after some lengthy self-examination and negotiation, he joined the Royal Navy as a Weapons Engineer. Polar opposite worlds surely, I ask. ‘Some surprising crossovers,’ he tells me; ‘weapons engineering-wise – a lot of similarities.’ He made the deliberate decision to enter as a rating rather than an officer, based on the wise understanding that managerial skills had far less appeal than the ‘hands on’ approach that had made his first career so enjoyable and productive. There seems to be real wisdom on display here, I think: self-knowledge, understanding what you really like doing and then going for it. Sounds like a really big challenge.


So how has it been? Well not always easy, Tom tells me. Without going into specifics, it is obvious that a very different mind-set is required. But the rewards are obviously amazing. In work terms, he makes clear that his wider experience and skill-sets are much appreciated and have helped fast-track him into his ongoing roles and continued training. ‘For me it has been a great move,’ he tells me. He waxes lyrical about the travel – ‘I joined and immediately did a year’s worth of engineering training then a year’s deployment on HMS Albion with ten months at sea, all around the middle east, and I’m now on another year’s land-based training’. Most extraordinary landfall? South Korea is the immediate response. Oh, and he got to see Formula 1 in Singapore. So not all work then. Camaraderie? Yes, of course, he tells me, but not always easy. Flexibility and tolerance clearly needed. With 400 people on board, and 30 sharing their public space, you have to be good at compromise, and definitely ‘don’t mention Brexit’. Enough said.


Back to the job. He is clearly relishing the multifarious challenges and rewards, including the role of a firefighter, involving massive temperatures and special equipment. “Sounds like every bloke’s dream’ I proffer, and he doesn’t disagree. What about Hurtwood’s contributions to this fascinating journey? ‘The teaching – obviously second to none.’ He singles out his Physics teacher’s brilliance in particular, and then the marvelous Music Tech department. With parents living in Belgium he spent many weekends on campus, in the Studio building his skills, and on one level, making his way towards his first career. Would he change this route? Clearly not.



Best piece of advice to other students at the crossroads? ‘Stop worrying about your peers’ successes. Stop comparing yourself to others. Do what makes you happy.’ I agree heartily, not least because he seems to be flourishing on his own mature choices.


Any final memories of Hurtwood? The Gig of Glory! ‘I hope Dave Fonseca is still rocking?’ He is indeed, as we all know. He admits to being three hours late to a rehearsal, in the wake of the Leavers Ball. When I reminded Dave, he remembered and laughed, so I think Tom is forgiven. It has been great to hear the confidence and clarity with which he is navigating (excuse the pun) his fascinating career journey, and frankly, he is proof that life is learning and learning is growing. Job done.