You may have been hearing a lot about apprenticeships lately. Here in the UK, the term has been at the forefront of thoughts and plans by financial and economic government departments, big and small employers, and parents and careers advisers over the past ten years as programmes and mechanisms have been gradually introduced in order to widen the range of training options available to the workforce.
Here’s a quick rundown of how it all works.
What is an Apprenticeship?
Broadly speaking, it means the same it has meant since the Middle Ages, when members of a guild would take on the responsibility of mentoring and training a young person to become proficient in their art or craft. It is a programme dedicated to training up the apprentice in a particular industry or skill, over a set period of time, with a small salary, and a professional or academic qualification gained at the end of it. While you can still get an apprenticeship in plenty of trades, arts and crafts are less common, having been replaced with sectors such as marketing and technology. The qualifications can range in level, from a Foundation Apprenticeship which you can use to replace one of your subjects at school (Scotland only), all the way up to masters-level apprenticeships in roles such as financial accounting. Given that employers think graduates don’t have enough knowledge of the workplace, a degree apprenticeship is a great way to get qualified at the same time as gaining years of relevant in-work experience, without having to pay for your education, and even being able to earn a small amount.
The minimum wage for apprentices is £3.70 per hour, which is incredibly low; but your company are paying for your education, so there’s a combined value of up to about £16,000 per year if you’re at degree level. Many apprenticeships do pay a fair bit higher than this minimum wage – Pret A Manger’s schemes start at £14,500, and a cyber-security apprenticeship with GCHQ gets you a salary of just under £18,000 in addition to a degree.
The general setup of the role is that you will be in the job for 80% of your time, and be given a day (on average) per week to study, whether that’s in a classroom or through online systems. The immediate relevance of your job to your studies means the two different learning situations are constantly being reinforced and validated. There’s no guarantee of a role with your company when the apprenticeship is over, but with a qualification and experience already on your CV, it’ll put you in the right direction for the career you want.
How does it work for companies?
In 2017, the UK government introduced an Apprenticeship Levy. This is an extra taxation of 0.5% on all companies with annual payroll bills of over £3 million. The Levy is then distributed to each UK nation for the devolved governments to allocate as per their own policy.
In England, through the Education and Skills Funding Agency, companies who pay the Levy are given back money to fund apprenticeships on the basis of how much they paid in, what proportion of their employees are based in England, and a 10% government top-up. They are given access to a simple online system to choose and pay for education providers for their apprentices. For companies who don’t pay into the Levy, there’s a contribution rate of 10% from the employer towards any apprenticeship funds they want, and the government will top up with the final 90%.
In Scotland, Modern Apprenticeships (the level between school age and degree apprenticeships, and the vast majority) are funded for apprentices aged 16-24, and sometimes 25+ depending on the sector and role. In addition, extra funds are available if a company takes on an apprentice who has come from a disadvantaged background, such as a care leaver. Degree apprenticeships are funded without a maximum age limit, as an undergraduate degree is always free of cost for Scottish students.
Wales offers some support to employers to help with training, depending on the sector, plus an extra Employer Incentive for up to three apprentices of any level who are aged 16–19. This is currently provided in conjunction with the European Social Fund, so frameworks and eligibility may change with future Brexit developments. Wales also has an online matching service, so that companies can find potential apprentices.
Northern Ireland’s apprenticeship schemes are primarily on Levels 2 and 3 (lower academic levels) at the moment, but they are piloting a scheme for Levels 4 to 8. The lower levels offer funding for employers, in addition to separate incentives for completion, whereas the new higher levels currently don’t; but again this funding comes from European funds, so it’s worth keeping an eye out to see if anything changes.
Who are Apprenticeships for?
Anyone! At school level, Scotland’s two-year Foundation Apprenticeships are based in colleges and work places for those in fifth and sixth year in secondary school. Beyond that, apprenticeships throughout the UK have broadly the same criteria that an academic route of the same level would have; for a lower level retail apprenticeship you might not need any qualifications, or one or two GCSEs, and for an engineering or financial degree apprenticeship you would be expected to have several A Levels in relevant subjects. For a masters degree apprenticeship it’s likely you would already need an undergraduate degree.
If you are in England, aged 16-24 and have no qualifications or work experience at all, you can get a Traineeship, which is intended as preparation for an apprenticeship. You can get support with English and maths skills while you train, and a guarantee of a job interview at the end.
Despite the old-fashioned view that apprenticeships are for those who are not good at school, their mix of real work and paid-for education means they are incredibly competitive – possibly more so than university entry and other entry-level job roles. They are suitable for people already in a job, who want to formalise their learning; employers are given the same funding for existing employees as they are for new starters.
The lack of age limits for most schemes means that they can also be great for career changers, with exactly the same eligibility requirements. Heidi and Hannah at In-House Insider, based in Yorkshire, recently took on a 60-year-old apprentice, telling Stay Nimble, “[We took him on] based on his qualifications (GCSEs) and how he did at the assessment centre and interview. Nothing else. Not age. Not CV. Whilst youth can bring enthusiasm and being able to be moulded, with age comes experience and with experience comes ideas … it’s about striking up the right balance. There’s always something to be learnt from one another.”
Where can I find out more?
Click on the link for the appropriate service for you, to get apprenticeship job listings and more information about what you can expect when applying.
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Author: Katherine Stephen
Katherine is a qualified careers advisor and a member of the Career Development Institute. She has just begun a PhD programme to research meta-skill development in the workplace, and is a fiction editor and publisher in her spare time. You can find her on Twitter at @katobell.