It’s the 17th annual National Apprenticeship Week from the 6th–12th February. Since the first National Apprenticeship Week in 2007, the UK apprenticeship system has changed almost beyond recognition.
Back then, apprenticeships were seen by many only as an option for young people who did not have many other options. Programmes were focused predominantly on traditional ‘trades’ (e.g. plumbing or building) or lower-paid professions (such as social care). Many employers were drawn to the scheme because they could pay much less than the minimum wage. At the same time, there was little need for employers to know much about what the young person was learning to get their qualification and, very often, the job and the qualification were a long way apart. Very few high-profile firms used apprenticeships.
Fast forward to 2023 and things are almost unrecognisably different: the likes of Rolls Royce, IBM and Google have put apprenticeships front and centre of their recruitment. The ‘Big 4’ accountancy firms now recruit as many apprentices as they do graduates. Many apprenticeship starting salaries compete with graduate salaries, in the mid to high £20,000s. Apprenticeship programmes are now ‘owned’ and defined by employers which means they are guaranteed to be relevant to a long-term career in that occupation.
Here are four reasons why your students should be excited by apprenticeships
1. Apprenticeships are here to stay
In 2017 the government introduced major reforms to apprenticeships:
- the Apprenticeship Levy that forced large firms to fund apprenticeships, or give up the money as an extra tax;
- moving to Apprenticeship ‘Standards’ defined by employers away from old-school ‘Frameworks’ that were defined by training providers;
- and formal End Point Assessment, a combination of a practical exam, portfolio review and ‘viva’ to create a formal exam to get the qualification, injecting tangible rigour and credibility to the apprenticeship brand.
Despite so many other things (!) changing in the past six years, all of these reforms are still in place – and likely to continue to be in place for the foreseeable future (even if there are some tweaks around the edges to the kind of training employers can use their Apprenticeship Levy for).
So you can plan with a strong degree of certainty around apprenticeships, both as a young person (the qualification will stand the test of time) and as a careers advisor.
2. They work with the grain of our brains
The neuroscience of learning is still new and evolving, but we know some things here in 2023 that we didn’t back in 2007. For example, there is now good scientific evidence that blending learning in a classroom with actually doing the thing you are learning, while supervised by someone more experienced, is the best way to learn: the theory means you understand what is happening, the practice means you can actually do it (not just talk about it).
This is essentially what an apprenticeship is. So if your goal is to learn how to do a particular job, the science indicates that there is no better way to do this than through an apprenticeship.
3. The very best careers are now accessible through apprenticeships
Nearly all of the UK’s largest employers now recruit large numbers of people at the start of their careers via apprenticeships. This includes household names of banking, retail, telecoms, manufacturing, engineering, professional services (accountancy, consultancy, etc.), IT and digital. For a number of years, it has been possible to become a fully qualified solicitor via a ladder of just apprenticeships and, as of 2023, it is now possible to become a fully qualified doctor in the same way. Pretty much the only career that you cannot enter through an apprenticeship is to be a university academic!
4. They make financial sense
A 2016 report found that people getting a Level 4 apprenticeship earned as much over their lifetime as the typical holder of a degree – and this was before the introduction of the reforms outlined above, which significantly improved the prospects for those getting and completing the best apprenticeships.
Three other factors need to be considered when it comes to the money:
- people doing an apprenticeship have three years during which they are earning, while someone at university is not (unless through part time jobs);
- apprentices are not just earning during their apprenticeship, but progressing with promotions and pay rises: by the time they’re three years into their career, it’s common for someone who has done an apprenticeship to be earning more than someone starting out as a graduate;
- people doing an apprenticeship are not incurring the costs of doing a degree – they have nothing to pay back and no debts hanging over them at the end.
But there are reasons to be cautious too
1. Not all apprenticeships are equal
There are many truly amazing apprenticeships, but not every apprenticeship is as good as the best. Employers who offer apprenticeships are representative of employers in general, which means some are dedicated to nurturing their next generation of talent, and some are not. Some providers (the organisations who manage the apprenticeship and deliver the training) are fantastic, but others are not, and they struggle despite best intentions to create a great experience. You need to make sure that the apprenticeship your students go for, the provider it is with and – most importantly – the employer it is with are good enough for what they want.
2. The process of getting an apprenticeship can seem bewildering
There are just 160 universities in the UK, they all begin their courses in September (with a few exceptions) and there is just one process to apply to every single one: UCAS. In comparison, there are over 1 million employers, they recruit all through the year at unpredictable times and, unsurprisingly really, they all do their own recruitment with their own processes.
It’s therefore only to be expected that finding an apprenticeship is a totally different experience from finding a place at university. In short, it takes more research, more effort and more time. Your students need to factor this into their planning and not be surprised that getting an apprenticeship is not as straightforward as getting a place at uni.
3. Many parents and teachers still don’t get it!
Some parents and some teachers do get it – a recent report by PwC found that middle-class parents had cottoned on to the benefits of apprenticeships – but many still do not. They only know or believe in university as the desirable choice after A levels. This means that if your students want to go down the apprenticeship route, they may find themselves having to justify and explain their choice far more than if they go for a more ‘traditional’ route. You’ll need to help them steel themselves to explain their decision (again and again!).
In summary, as we approach National Apprenticeship Week, there are certainly reasons to be excited about apprenticeships: the opportunities have never been as exciting or desirable. But it is also sensible for students to be aware of the challenges associated with choosing this route.
Ben is writing The Apprenticeship Guidebook, publishing this summer with Trotman Indigo Publishing, which is aimed at students and careers advisors to help them navigate their way around apprenticeships. Ben is an advisor to commercial, government and non-profit organisations when they want to bring about human-focused transformation. He is an expert in how organisations find, recruit, develop and get the best out of their people – their most important asset. Ben has a particular interest in apprenticeships. He was the founder of Arch Apprentices, one of the UK’s top ten apprenticeship providers and the first apprenticeship programme to work with the likes of Google and Facebook. He helped to launch a number of new apprenticeship programmes, such as the world’s first ever digital marketing apprenticeship and data and business analyst programmes. As a parent of teenagers, he is acutely aware of the minefield and difficult choices facing people as they come up to leaving full time education.