Apprenticeships are the answer to youth unemployment - as long as we do them properly

I left school at 16, but was in a better position than many of my school friends after they graduated from university. Why? Because I did an apprenticeship

Today A-Level results day sees another round of clammy-browed teenagers tearing open an envelope containing clues to their futures.

Despite fees rocketing, 49 per cent will head to university, in comparison to the 1960s when only one in 20 young people went. Others will do nothing. Recent records show 1.1 million 16 – 24 year olds are NEET ("not in education, employment or training").

Academic, schooled, or not, where will they end up? In the teenies, the bleak future of the graduate is often depicted and student nightmare stories of piling debt, shelf stacking and endless internships are widespread.

Figures released yesterday from research company ICM show that more than half of young people would choose to do an apprenticeship, if one was available. As an ex-apprentice, I think careers advice should include this route as a valid, favourable option for all school leavers.

After attending a grammar school which thrust university as the only real option for further education, I was unaware of apprenticeships – the ‘blue collar’ choice of plumbers and such – until I became an apprentice myself.

Nearly all my school friends went to university. And when they settled into their first job after graduating – recruitment, sales etc., bitter mutterings about my earnings and work life ensued.

Unlike them, I left school at 16, so why was I better off than a graduate? Because for years I worked 9 - 5 Monday to Friday in an accountancy firm, cramming in study as well as another 20 hours a week in additional part-time jobs.

Apart from being knackered, my CV was impressive and my work experience extensive, I gained confidence, resourcefulness and a plethora of other soft skills. From here I propelled myself into the Civil Service, then business, increasing my wages substantially with each career move – meritocracy at its finest.

Mine is not a anomalous experience. The ICM research shows employers find apprentices 15 per cent more employable than candidates with other qualifications.

In the beginning I wasn’t flush and it was a struggle; in 2001, I started on £6,000 per year. I lived independently due to family difficulties, and the sheer fear of not being able to pay my bills spurred me along - my yearly council tax alone was almost £1,000.

Tanned friends spent days on the beach near where we grew up, while I rocked duck egg blue skin after spending days of solitude in a dusty cellar filing or reconciling fudged accounts – soft skill learnt: tenacity.

Alan Sugar has shown us you can become a shiny "apprentice" with a washing powdered white collar but it is not only business you can break into – finance, politics and the third sector all boast apprenticeship schemes. They are perfect for social inclusion and diversity, and I advocate them passionately; however as with everything, underneath the gloss there are some issues.

I have worked with young people pressured into a vocation they were really unhappy with but their advisors were more concerned about targets. This rang true - I was pushed into accountancy for the pure fact of having attended a ‘good’ school, even though my strengths lay in English and the arts, and I wanted to be a journalist.

There is nothing worse than working your life away as a teenager, in a soul-shattering job. Careers advisors (do they still exist?) should beware that, like me, apprentices could end up doodling all over their mouse mat and penning poems to stop the madness descending.

When you are working full time in a career choice and studying, it's tough and on-the-job support needs to be readily available. My long-term educational achievements were affected due to miscommunication in the firm and the apprenticeship provider because I was the first ever apprentice, an experiment, and I suffered.

In the last year 1,000 Civil Service jobs were cut and 500 apprentices were taken on board. Research shows that apprentices can dramatically improve a business's bottom line, yet the national apprentice wage is only £2.65 per hour. This is low, especially considering companies that have less than 1,000 employees could be entitled to a government grant of £3,000 to fund apprenticeships.

The cost of a qualification and support does not justify this low pay. The refreshing energy and aptitude many capable young people introduce into different sectors leave businesses with huge profits; we should reward them accordingly.

To find out more about apprenticeships, visit www.apprenticeships.org.uk, Apprentice.TV or look out for the Jobs Bus touring the UK from August 15th.

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