It’s not often that my writing is fuelled by frustration but this is the exception!
As a committed advocate for apprenticeships, I’m happy that they are having ‘a moment’. According to government statistics, in 2019/20 there were 719,000 people participating in an apprenticeship in England, with 322,500 apprenticeship starts and 146,900 apprenticeship achievements.
Obviously they were hit badly by the Covid epidemic but nonetheless they are receiving more of the recognition they deserve as a way to educate people and get them into the workplace. Who knows? One day they may even become trendy – we live in hope.
Getting clear information about them remains a trial, however. The Internet is a wonderful tool but it is also difficult to navigate. Anyone can post pretty much anything they like, and wading through the plethora of information about apprenticeships is like climbing a sand dune in flip-flops. There are hundreds of thousands of websites devoted to the subject, some more useful than others, and it doesn’t take long to lose your investigatory will and go back to Netflix or a good book.
It’s frustrating, time consuming and hard work. So, here is my short (and hopefully useful) guide to apprenticeships, with some basic information and links to helpful websites that involve as few clicks on your mouse as possible.
- There are different websites depending on which country you live in
Apprenticeships are a devolved function; they operate separately in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and there are differences between them.
If you put ‘apprenticeships’ into a search engine, you’ll be directed to the UK government’s website: https://www.gov.uk/become-apprentice. This information applies primarily to apprentices in England.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems and websites:
Northern Ireland: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/campaigns/apprenticeships
All these websites have easy-to-use apprenticeship vacancy pages that allow applicants to search for apprenticeships in a subject and/or location that appeals to them.
- Apprenticeships are for all age groups
Many people believe that apprenticeships are for young school or college leavers but there is no upper age limit! Anyone over 16 can apply for an apprenticeship and students can apply whilst still at school.
In England and Scotland, there are foundation apprenticeships that they can access whilst studying – these are enhanced work-experience programmes that don’t involve formal employment contracts. https://www.ucas.com/apprenticeships/what-you-need-know-about-apprenticeships/foundation-apprenticeships
In Wales, the term foundation apprenticeships means something different and is for the over-16s. https://careerswales.gov.wales/my-future/find-out-about-your-options/be-an-apprentice
In Northern Ireland, as far as I can see, the term doesn’t exist. The equivalent would be a Level 2 apprenticeship.
Key point: in all countries, students can start exploring apprenticeships whilst at school. (Can you feel my flip-flops slipping backwards – and I’ve only just started!)
- What apprenticeships offer
Apprenticeships take between one and five years to complete, depending on their level (more about levels in a minute). The following information is taken from the UK government website and should apply to all countries – but do check out websites for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if they apply to your students.
- On the job training – a chance to work with experienced colleagues in their chosen industry.
- Education – at least 20% of the working week will be set aside for education/formal training. This can be provided in college, online or in the workplace but it should lead to a recognised educational qualification.
- Employee rights – all employees (including apprentices) are protected in law by regulations that cover a range of issues from sick pay, to workplace conditions and disciplinary procedures. This is something that needs to be emphasised to young people who are starting an apprenticeship: their employer has not got a licence to exploit them in any way. The best source of advice and help is the ACAS website: https://www.acas.org.uk/young-workers-apprentices-and-work-experience/working-hours-for-apprentices
- A wage (including at least 20 days (+ bank holidays) holiday pay) – apprenticeships have their own National Minimum Wage. It’s not a lot, but it is guaranteed. Note that word ‘minimum’ – there may be employers who offer more (one can only hope!). Here are the rates at the time of writing.
The system appears more complicated than it needs to be, and it keeps changing – as do the rates. Keep up to date at: https://www.gov.uk/national-minimum-wage-rates
- Qualification levels
This is where the wading through sand becomes swimming through treacle.
Apprenticeships have equivalent education levels. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are 9 qualification levels.
Scotland has a different system, although obviously it has to correspond to the rest of the UK in some way. It was here that I started to lose the will to live and certainly couldn’t find a way to summarise the information. The best I can do is refer you to a relevant website that does its best. https://www.ucas.com/apprenticeships/apprenticeships-scotland
- Range of apprenticeship subjects
In Northern Ireland there are currently around 150 Intermediate and Advanced Apprenticeships and more than 45 Higher Apprenticeships to choose from. Scotland says it has ‘more than 100’ modern apprenticeships. Wales says apprenticeships are available ‘across all sectors’, and England – okay, here I got lost in a maze of websites. Let’s just say that apprenticeships are also available in most industry sectors.
The important point is that apprenticeships do not relate to any one industry sector – they are not just for people who want to work in industry or technology, but offer opportunities across a range of careers from nursing to media to the legal profession.
- Myths and misconceptions
Now this is the really tricky but essential bit. Although apprenticeships have been gaining in popularity, there are still too many people who don’t recognise their worth. Common misconceptions range from apprentices fearing they will be exploited as cheap labour, to employers fearing they will take on people who have no intention of working, to parents feeling that apprenticeships are in some way substandard to a university education.
In an ideal world, all apprenticeships would do what they say on the tin. Employers would be patient, keen to help their apprentices move forward; apprentices would have a formidable work ethic and always arrive on time; parents would be delighted that their offspring have found something they genuinely want to do, will at some point be gainfully employed and might eventually stop relying on the bank of Mum and Dad.
Sadly we don’t live in an ideal world and apprenticeships don’t always run smoothly. But they are improving all the time and I still firmly believe that they are the way forward, not only for individuals but for the country as a whole.
If you agree with me, now all you need to do is put on your hiking boots to climb that dune or your flippers to swim through that treacle and tackle the information overload.
Useful general websites for those considering apprenticeships:
Karen Holmes is a qualified teacher and experienced writer, specialising in education, management and training. She has written several careers books, as well as articles for magazines and journals on careers development.