National Apprenticeship Week: Changing the image of apprenticeships

Moves are being made to showcase placements as a genuine alternative to a degree

Great apprenticeships are the theme of this year’s National Apprenticeship Week (NAW). According to the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), over 700 events run this week by colleges and employers across England will demonstrate how vocational qualifications offer great prospects for young people – and great opportunities for businesses. See apprenticeships.org.uk for the full programme.

For Jack Haydon, 17, it also gives him and other apprentices a chance to talk about careers that they’re passionate about. An apprentice with engineering firm WSP, he’s hosting a lunchtime seminar on electrical engineering as part of the company’s programme of activities.

“My favourite part of engineering is being able to see in more detail how things are put together, and being able to see the results of my work,” he explains. “If you have a good idea of what career you would like to go into, an apprenticeship is the best way to pursue it.”

His fellow engineering apprentices will be job-shadowing and even taking over the firm’s Twitter feed (#asktheapprentice). Mark Naysmith, MD of WSP UK, believes that raising awareness of  apprenticeships is vital – for the  firm as well as the students. “Recruiting apprentices ensures that we’re contributing to the development of professionals in our industry for future generations,” he says.

However, there’s often confusion around – or even ignorance of – apprenticeships. The word itself still conjures images of Mickey Mouse versus infinite mops, suited loudmouths cowering before Lord Sugar, or the spectre of a narrow qualification that’s suitable only for trainee plumbers.

Of course, apprenticeships can and do train plumbers, but they can equally lead to degree-level awards and careers in areas from advertising to nuclear decommissioning. “I believe apprenticeships are looked at in a negative way by those leaving school,” says Haydon, arguing that students are pushed towards the A-levels and university route.

This perception of apprenticeships as a back-up plan compared to university is one that Matthew Hancock, minister for skills and enterprise, wants to challenge. He believes that choosing between going to university or beginning an apprenticeship should become “the new norm” for young people. “Awareness of apprenticeships is growing,” he says. “However, we can always do more to dispel myths and promote the benefits to individuals and employers.”

With this in mind, educational institutions are working hard to give prospective apprentices a general introduction to the qualification. Oldham College students are producing day-in-the-life films, with a new video released each day this week on the college website (oldham.ac.uk). “Viewers will gain a real sense of what being an apprentice involves and the diversity of opportunities on offer,” says Susannah Tyson, vice-principal for skills and enterprise.

Aaron Robertson Bee is proof that exposure to a positive message around apprenticeships can be  life-changing. “Last year’s apprenticeship week really alerted me to the possibility that an apprenticeship might be the right option  for me,” he says. “I began thinking that taking a degree was no guarantee of a job, but was pretty much a guarantee of a big hole  in my finances.”

Instead, he began an apprenticeship at Bournemouth & Poole  College, learning engineering theory and training with a local oil well support company. “I’m no  Red Adair, but as my training progresses I may well be sent abroad on troubleshooting and advice missions,” he says. “I have no regrets – I love it.”

Elsewhere, some organisations are using NAW to launch new apprenticeships. The Peter Jones Foundation – run by the entrepreneur and Dragons’ Den personality – has developed a Level 5 higher apprenticeship in innovation and growth, highlighting the role the foundation believes apprentices will play in future businesses. Offered at several UK colleges, it will “nurture ‘intrapreneurial’ and confident business leaders” according to Alice Barnard, the foundation’s chief executive.

Employers are also visiting colleges in order to see first-hand the potential of apprentices, or – in the case of Croydon College – to help them with their employability through mock interviews and seminars. However, the key is making apprenticeships more visible, says carpentry apprentice Aiden Hoadley, 22. “NAW is important, because when I was younger, I didn’t know about this type of opportunity. More people need to know about what they can offer you,” he says.

That offer includes 86 per cent of apprentices staying in employment, two-thirds of whom remain with the same employer, according to the NAS. All the more reason for the image of apprenticeships to change, says Ben Lapham, 17, a civil engineering apprentice at WSP. “Apprentices are not slaves – they’re young people who are choosing a career path, gaining experience in the workplace and getting paid for doing it,” he adds.

The personal effects of apprenticeships – and by extension National Apprenticeship Week – can be significant, concludes Lapham. “I have found a job and an organisation where you get back what you put in. That’s definitely changed me for the better.”

Case study: “I’ve found myself constantly challenged”

Courtney Lockyer, 22, is a Higher Apprentice on the O2 Apprenticeship scheme and currently works as a Sustainability Coordinator

“When I started my GCSEs I always thought I would go to university,” says Lockyer. “But when it came to my second year at college, the thought of going wasn’t as exciting as it used to be.”

Despite her uncertainty she wasn't aware of other paths she could take until a college careers fair introduced her to the idea of apprenticeships. “I started to realise there might be more exciting options,” she says, “did my research and came across the O2 apprenticeship scheme.”

The scheme sees apprentices gaining practical work experience in different departments and studying for a degree at The Open University. Her highlights so far include leading on a sustainability initiative designed to reduce waste from spare and redundant phone chargers. “It allowed me to really push myself,” she says, “experiencing new things and presenting the results to the CEO and other senior members of the business.”

Variety is another big plus. “I’ve found myself constantly challenged,” she says. “With technology evolving at lightning speed, it’s a really exciting time. The opportunities to learn something new or try something different are endless.”

For Lockyer, the apprenticeship route offers students the best of both worlds. “It allows you to progress with your qualifications but gives you real life work experience,” she says, “and the opportunity to put what you learn into practice.”

National Apprenticeship Week 2014 runs until Friday. Now in its seventh year, it aims to raise awareness of the range of opportunities available, through events across England.

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