Up through the 1980s, traditional apprenticeships in the UK served as a way for young people to learn a craft or a trade instead of pursuing university. They focused on certification for technical trades, manufacturing and engineering. Perhaps the greatest success of the old system was the Chartered Engineer qualification, which certified the earner—after 10 to 12 years of working, education and vocational training—as the highest level of engineering professional. 

That highly specialised programme showed that combining on-the-job practise with off-the-job education led to excellence. When the UK government set out to revitalise this type of career training with the Modern Apprenticeships programme (renamed Apprenticeships everywhere except Scotland), it built on that success.

By 2015, a study from the Centre for Economics and Business Research showed that the British public were quite supportive of the new apprenticeship programmes. When a business offered apprenticeships, two-thirds of respondents said they perceived the company positively as creating opportunities for youth and contributing to the betterment of society. One in four people went so far as to say they were more likely to spend money with a business that employed apprentices.

Apprenticeships are getting recognised as a great route for professional development for several reasons:

  • Strict new standards
  • Academic credentialing
  • The financial advantages of apprenticeships

High standards for job training

Alternate route to academic credentials

Quick road to career goals

High standards for job training

The National Apprenticeship Service, founded in 2009, is the body that coordinates apprenticeships. It provides support services to both apprenticeship seekers and employers looking to hire them. And just as you as an apprentice are expected to meet certain expectations and requirements, so too are employers.

To successfully complete an apprenticeship, you must prove that you have developed both knowledge about the field and competence in the field. Much of the competence will come from on-the-job training you receive from your employer during the 80% of your time dedicated to working. For general knowledge, employers often contract with a certified training provider to conduct off-the-job education; that 20% of your time makes up the rest of your paid hours.

In addition, your employer needs to ensure that you meet standards for functional skills, usually Maths and English. If you need time to work on these required skills, your employer must allow you to study during your regular working hours; this time is part of the hours allocated to work, not the ones set aside for off-the-job training.

At the end of your apprenticeship, you must pass what’s called an end-point assessment to verify that you have learned all the skills, knowledge and behaviour expected of a professional in your field. Your employer hires an end-point assessment organisation to test you according to industry standards; when you pass, you will receive the appropriate certification.

Alternate route to academic credentials

Because of this rigorous training and emphasis on education, each level of apprenticeship, from 2 to 7, allows you to achieve education levels from GCSE through to a bachelor’s or master’s degree—while you earn money and gain job experience.

The first level, Level 2, is designed primarily for the youngest apprentices. When you complete the intermediate apprenticeship programme, which takes an average of 12-18 months, you will earn a Level 2 National Vocational Qualification (NVQ)—that’s the competence qualification—and knowledge certification that is the equivalent of passing 5 GCSEs. Afterwards, you can continue to work in the field or move on to a higher level of apprenticeship.

To enter an advanced apprenticeship, Level 3, you usually must have either achieved 5 GCSEs or completed their equivalent through an intermediate (Level 2) apprenticeship. Upon completion, which takes 2-4 years, you will have a Level 3 NVQ and, depending on the apprenticeship, other certifications—altogether the equivalent of passing 2 A-Levels.

Higher apprenticeships—Level 4 and Level 5—are designed for people aged 18 years and up who have either 2 A-Levels or the equivalent (often achieved by completing an advanced apprenticeship). When you complete these apprenticeships, you will earn a competence-based NVQ at Level 4 or above, as well as knowledge certificates equalling a higher national certificate or a foundation degree.

Degree apprenticeships, Levels 6 and 7, take about 3-6 years. You usually need to have completed a higher apprenticeship or earned the equivalent academic qualifications first. At the end of your programme, you will have either a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in your field.

Quick road to career goals

If you are already clear on the profession you want to pursue, the choice between paying tuition to attend university and earning wages while earning a degree seems clear. As an apprentice, you begin to earn money, make professional connections and build your qualifications.

Increased social esteem for apprenticeships may stem in part from the fact that the lifetime earning gap between university graduates and apprentices has narrowed to 1.8%—only about £4 a month, according to a 2017 study.

As the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training reported at the time, “The increase in university tuition fees, contrasted with apprentices being paid during their training, also contributes to closing the [lifetime earnings premium] gap and may encourage more people to start an apprenticeship in the coming years.”

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