Updated 7 February 2022
Becoming an apprentice is a great alternative to joining the student ranks. We can earn while we learn, avoid massive debt, and boost our earnings by up to £150k over a lifetime.
When Zara McDermott, star of the 2018 series of Love Island, finished her A-Levels she decided to become an apprentice. She had good grades, some of the best in her year, which would have got her into most universities. But as she told the BBC: “I felt like university was becoming a little bit of a lifestyle choice as opposed to a future career choice. I really just wanted to get myself stuck into the world of work.”
But as Zara found out, there’s still a stigma around apprenticeships in the school system. “My headmaster was like, ‘Why would you go for an apprenticeship?’” Zara stuck to her guns and ended up in an advisor role at the Department for Education.
More than 170 industries now offer apprenticeships, and completing one boosts our earning potential by ten per cent on average. With university fees in some parts of the country nearing ten grand a year, apprenticeships are a great way to avoid debt and get a head start in a career.
More than one way
As Zara’s story shows, at school we’re often told that the only route to success is through university. The message is drummed in from early on: Get your GCSEs, get your A-Levels and then go to uni. After graduating, we’ll land a graduate job earning good money and live happily ever after. For some, getting a degree is the right path. But for others, it’s not. So if we don’t take the uni route, have we failed in life before we’re even out of school? Or have we dodged a £50,000 debt trap that comes with fewer and fewer guarantees?
Student vs apprentice
One research report showed the average uni graduate has a starting salary of £21,000-£25,000 for their first job.
That’s compared to an average of £20,065 (but up to £33,869 for those with more experience) for those completing an apprenticeship, who could be around the same age. Add to that the fact that apprentices get paid while developing their skills and don’t end up in tens of thousands of pounds of debt. Suddenly, the idea of a degree as the only way to get ahead in a career starts to look shaky.
Tom Mynott, a software development apprentice at TfL, who won the Rising Star of the Year award at the 2018 National Apprentice Awards, said: “I had an offer to study Computer Science at Bournemouth University but I changed my mind when I got the offer letter. I feel like I’ve learned a lot more than I would have done at university. I’m now saving for a house, I’ve had a career for three years and I’m living a proper life.”
And still, there’s a stigma around apprenticeships. Why? It could be that the hourly rate for apprentices is a meagre £5.28 (for the first year). But that’s only the minimum an employer has to pay. Many employers top this rate up. And the hourly rate goes up in the second year of an apprenticeship. If we’re over 19 and have completed the first year of our apprenticeship, we’ll be eligible for the minimum wage for our age – and that’s £10.42 an hour for over-23s.
When an hour of student tuition costs up to £25, the apprentice is ahead by at least thirty quid an hour.
Open for all
More and more businesses offer modern apprenticeships. Perceptions of them as the poor man’s route into a manual trade are outdated. They can be a fast track to high-status careers, coming with technical training often sponsored by the employer.
Many offer professional qualifications in everything from accountancy and business administration to joinery and plumbing. Some 170 industries are involved. The range of options is massive. An apprenticeship is not just for school-leavers, either. There’s no upper age limit. In fact, in 2016 there were more 25 to 49-year-olds on apprenticeships than both under-19s and 19 to 24-year-olds.
So, whether we’re finishing our GCSEs or looking to change our career, an apprentice scheme is a great option. The chances of bagging a permanent job at the end of an apprenticeship are high. As Annie Cook, NHS Career Development Coordinator, says: “The apprenticeship scheme has allowed us to bring in new talent. And 98 per cent of our apprentices go on to employment.”
How it works
- In England, there are three levels of apprenticeship: Intermediate, Advanced and Higher
- In Scotland: Foundation Apprenticeship, Modern and Graduate
- In Wales: Foundation, Apprenticeship, Higher and Degree
- Apprentices usually work four days and study one day a week
- Apprentices earn at least the national minimum wage while they learn and holidays are paid
- Apprenticeships are funded by big businesses and the government
- Anybody over the age of 16 can become an apprentice
- To find out more visit apprenticeship websites for England, Wales and Scotland
- The websites list apprenticeships on offer and give advice on preparing, applying and interviews.