Students over the age of 16 who choose an apprenticeship are in good company, irrespective of the goings-on in Lord Sugar's boardroom. Notable apprentices throughout history have included Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and even Elvis, who was an apprentice electrician before putting on those blue suede shoes.

Modern apprenticeships have rather more structure and support than their predecessors, though, and are growing in popularity. According to the National Apprenticeship Service, there are currently 85,000 employers offering apprenticeships in 130,000 locations. With 200 apprenticeships to choose from, covering every industry from arts, media and publishing to engineering and manufacturing technologies, candidates will find many potential career paths open to them.

"Choosing the apprenticeship route means that you can earn a good salary at the same time as gaining relevant practical skills in the workplace and achieving qualifications recognised and valued by business," says Simon Waugh, executive chairman of the National Apprenticeship Service. "Many apprentices also progress to higher levels, securing promotion, going on to university, or through the growing number of Higher Apprenticeships that are available, opening up more employment opportunities."

An apprenticeship combines work-based vocational learning with study. The apprentice is employed from the beginning of the programme, doing paid work for their employer – wages vary, with the national average currently standing at around £170 per week. In addition to their work-based training, apprentices study for formal qualifications (ie an NVQ or BTEC) at an approved institution, such as a college.

The main benefit is that an apprenticeship offers a clearly defined route into a career, and is focused on teaching students practical skills in the workplace that are reinforced by classroom-based learning. The exact time spent at either work or college varies.

Apprentices are clear on how the qualification has helped. Former apprentice Holly Manley is now store manager of Superdrug in Bexley Heath, and believes the training gave her the confidence to aim for a management position. "Although I didn't leave school with the skills necessary to enter into management," she says, "because of the apprenticeship programme, I now have an exciting career in front of me and have applied to do further management training."

Students can become an apprentice from the age of 16, and there is no upper age limit. Candidates can apply for a programme at various points in their careers – so it's perfectly possible to be a graduate and take one up (although it won't be funded). The qualification is then split into three different categories: intermediate, advanced and higher.

An intermediate apprenticeship offers an NVQ level two, and occasionally a BTEC qualification. Advanced apprenticeships offer NVQ level three and usually a BTEC. A higher apprenticeship leads to an NVQ level four and a more senior qualification, such as a foundation degree. All apprenticeships have a few things in common: in addition to the "learning and earning" ethos, they offer a technical certificate and key skills training, including communication, teamwork and leadership.

An apprenticeship can also be an affordable option for many. Under-18s have the entire cost of their training paid for by the National Apprenticeships Service; those between 19 and 24 receive 50 per cent, and over-25s may receive some assistance depending on the placement.

The benefits aren't only for the apprentices, explains Jon Dicken, head of training at Gloucester-based electrical company Clarkson Evans . "Apprentices account for around 30 per cent of our workforce. We offer long-term career opportunities, and several of our apprentices have progressed into project management and even board level."

The National Apprenticeship Service offers plenty of advice and recommends that potential students begin by researching the industries and careers that interest them. Its website – – offers a search facility where employers and prospective employees alike can search for apprentices or vacancies. Would-be apprentices can also manage their applications online.

For those seeking an alternative way into the working world, an apprenticeship might just be the right path. And as Leonardo himself proved, an apprenticeship offers a big canvas on which to demonstrate your success.