There’s an entertaining blog on the government’s HMRC digital website, entitled “Cyber Security Apprenticeships: sneaky criminals and Q from James Bond”. From the way it’s written, it’s hard to tell if the author Sam is a real person or the piece has been created by an enthusiastic PR officer. Whatever: he’s very enthusiastic about his work even if it doesn’t involve fast cars and Kingsman movie gizmos.

The fascinating aspect of the article is the way in which it illustrates how far – and into what professions – apprenticeships have developed.

We’re a million miles from the days when the term “apprenticeship” summoned up visions of manual labour and a way into a “trade”. According to the government’s guide to apprenticeships, at any one time there are between 12,000 and 20,000 vacancies on their website in more than 1,500 job disciplines. Animal trainer or academic, maritime caterer or boatbuilder– think of almost any career sector and it will probably offer an apprenticeship route for new recruits. As a way into permanent employment in hundreds of industries, apprenticeships are now the favoured option, particularly for school and college leavers.

When apprenticeships are properly organised and supported, they’re an invaluable route into employment for young people. They provide an introduction not only to a skillset but, more importantly, to the whole culture of working life. They develop social and personal skills that no amount of college or university education can instil. They teach you to work with others, to manage your time, to take responsibility and become accountable for what you do. On a very basic level, they impart the discipline of getting up and going to work day in, day out.

The money may not be great but pay levels are controlled. Apprentices aged 16–18 (or aged over 19 and in their first year) earn at least £3.90 per hour. It’s not a fortune but it’s not bad if you’re eighteen and fresh out of school. Apprentices aged 25 and over (and not in the first year of their apprenticeship) are entitled to the National Minimum Wage. A 2016 survey calculated that Level 1 and 2 apprentices average £14,000 a year or more. Hardly megabucks but compared to living on a university student’s income and racking up huge debt…

The problem is that it’s the bad pennies that grab the headlines: the employers who use apprenticeships to recruit cheap labour and those who put their profits ahead of staff development. In 2017, a government survey reported that one in five apprentices were illegally underpaid. Other problems include lack of proper training and learning opportunities, and inappropriate workplace culture. Just Google ‘unhappy with my apprenticeship’ to get some idea of the grief that can arise when the system doesn’t work. On the plus side, efforts to control rogue employers are improving all the time. Companies are now being named, shamed and fined for not implementing schemes effectively and not providing adequate educational opportunities and support. National Apprenticeship Week in March 2019 saw the publication of league tables for top employers plus a quality mark for apprenticeships, developed in partnership with Community Interest Company Investors in People.

Importantly, apprenticeships are gaining academic recognition. At the higher level, schools will soon be required to promote apprenticeships on a par with university education and they will have the same legal status as degrees. For those of us who are strong advocates of apprenticeships, this is good news. However, the government introduces and abandons education and training initiatives with the speed of a merry-go-round. How anyone, particularly careers leaders, keeps up is a miracle. But that’s modern life for you: turn your back for a moment and you’ll get left behind. So, it’s time for a recap on the current state of play, particularly as we’re in the middle of another period of change. Bear in mind that Scotland and Wales have their own systems. For the purposes of this article, I’m focusing on the far-reaching changes that are planned in England

In England, the government has pledged to enable three million apprenticeship starts by 2020. It also plans to phase out existing frameworks by the start of the 2020/2021 academic year. Instead there will be new Apprenticeship Standards from an intermediate Level 2 (GCSE) to Levels 6 and 7 (bachelor’s/master’s degree). These standards will be developed by employers, industry experts and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

All apprentices will take an end-point assessment (EPA) at the end of their training to confirm that they’ve achieved “occupational competence”. The EPAs will be delivered by independent third parties that will be registered by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).

In 2020, selected establishments will introduce T-levels, which will follow GCSEs and will be equivalent to three A Levels. Using a blend of classroom learning and on-job training, T-levels will provide industry placements of at least forty-five days, and are designed to “provide the knowledge and experience needed to open the door into skilled employment, further study or a higher apprenticeship”.

There’s a whiff of déjà vu about many of these plans and you may want to start taking bets on how long it will be before the whole learning, training and qualifications system undergoes another revision and rebranding. Governments, of whatever persuasion, do like to dabble.  But for now, it’s good to know that the majority of employers and apprentices feel that the current scheme is delivering long-term benefits.


Key facts:

  • Apprenticeships are available to anyone over the age of 16.
  • There’s no upper age limit.
  • There are different entry requirements depending on the industry, type and level of the apprenticeship
  • The length of apprenticeships varies but is based on a 30-hour working week. At least 20% of this should be spent in off-the-job training/education.
  • Employers and new recruits should both sign up to an official Apprenticeship Agreement that sets out an individual learning plan, including provision for assessment and mentoring.


Check out:

A guide to apprenticeships

Apprenticeships evaluation 2017: learners survey

Apprenticeships evaluation 2017: employers survey