Home > News and views > View all

Apprenticeships: better skills, better careers

Published: Apr 17, 2016 5 min read

STEM learning

Mention apprenticeships and most people think of plumbing or welding. But times have changed. In a world where having a degree no longer guarantees a degree-level job, apprentices have become a key weapon in closing the ever-widening skills gap that has resulted in the UK achieving one of the lowest productivity rates of the developed world. They are important to our economic prosperity.

Apprenticeships are jobs with training. They are diverse. At one level, they are a passport to a graduate-level career and, at another, they prevent a waste of energy and enthusiasm in a young person who may otherwise have become NEET (Not in Employment Education or Training).


As a parent, teacher, employer or as a young person, you should be aware of their positive power to transform lives.

Before I continue, I have to address the elephant in the room. As someone who has prospered in two highly-successful German manufacturing organisations, I can say that apprenticeships—at whichever level—are not a second class way of entering a career. They provide an alternative and, for some, a more appropriate route into a chosen career. German companies value apprenticeships. They see them as ways of building and retaining talent and of injecting dynamism and enthusiasm into their organisations; and not as being for strugglers who fail school.

Listening to government rhetoric, you could be forgiven for thinking apprenticeships are the invention of the current government. They are not.

Indeed, in 1563, the parliament of Elizabeth I made it illegal for anyone to exercise any occupation “except he shall have been brought up therein seven years at the least as an apprentice". Before then, apprenticeships were regulated by the Guilds—some of which still survive to this day—with the oldest-recorded apprenticeship, for a carpentry apprentice named William Holyer of Lostwithiel, dating from 1541. The lost pre-eminence of the UK manufacturing base and several ill-advised policy moves, including the birth of the "Modern Apprentice" in the early 1990s, meant that the apprenticeship heyday had well and truly passed by the 2000s.

Then came the 2008 crash which highlighted the need to re-balance the economy. The Wolf Review into vocational education criticised low-level courses that failed to lead to employment, and the re-focus on quality skills education and training heralded by Professor Wolf included high quality apprenticeships with direct employer engagement—a key feature of the German system. In October 2013, the government introduced new Trailblazer Standards, co-funded with 2/3 from government and the rest from the employer. Trailblazers are designed by employers to ensure apprentices develop the skills needed for employment and not those the education sector chooses to provide.

And now we have the game-changer: the apprenticeship levy. Are you ready for that change?

From April 2017, large employers will pay an apprenticeship levy of 0.5 per cent on annual pay bills in excess of £3 million which, it is estimated, will raise £3 billion for apprenticeship training. Whether you agree with the levy or not, it is clear this policy has already delivered a massive change. At board level, companies are talking about apprentices. If they are paying in, they want to see how they can get their money back out, which is forcing businesses to think harder about how to deploy apprentices.

The coalition government actively oversaw 2.4 million apprenticeship starts and the current government has pledged to create 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020. However, the apprenticeship phenomenon is more than just a political pledge; employers are now in the driving seat of skills provision. They make business sense in a rapidly changing skills-driven economy that 8 years on from the financial crash remains precariously out of balance.

Is an apprenticeship right for you, or someone you know?

The opportunities are endless; from journalism to banking, law, engineering, and the civil service. Not all apprenticeships are the same. They are developed by employers to be relevant to the needs of their industry. More importantly, there are different levels of apprenticeship, so apprentices benefit from a job that will take them beyond their existing level of qualification. The shortest is 1 year—30 hours a week—but some extend for up to 7 years. Their versatility is their strength. At the end of the apprenticeship, if the apprentice has reached the required standard of the employer, they will be awarded an apprenticeship certificate. However, an apprentice will also study for at least one professional, industry or educational qualification as part of their training.

Higher level apprenticeships are often billed as a viable alternative to university, but they don't have to be.

They combine both vocational training and academic learning. A key benefit for apprentices in these days of £9000 tuition fees is that they can earn while they learn and the employer picks up the training cost. A successful business, Capgemini has seen significant benefits from its 5 year vocational degree apprenticeships offered through its link-up with Aston University. In the legal profession, apprentices are also learning on the job and, at the end of 5 or 6 years, they are set up for life with a level 7 qualification equivalent to a master’s degree, plus fantastic work experience, great employability skills—a major requirement amongst graduate recruiters—and no student debt. But perhaps the biggest benefit—unlike with a degree—there is normally a guaranteed degree level job at the end. And if you are concerned about long-term earning potential, don’t be. Modelling done by the Boston Consulting Group found apprentices with a level 5 qualification would earn £1.4 million over their lifetime. Below that of a Russell group university, but fractionally ahead of other graduates.

Apprenticeships are advertised directly by employers on their individual websites, but for more information and real current opportunities go to www.apprenticeships.gov.uk. The site is full of stories of apprenticeships that have transformed lives.