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 tej kohli
12 October 2015

Apprenticeship: The Unsung Hero of Further Education

For some young people university is highly advantageous and enjoyable – an opportunity not to be missed. Yet upon graduating many university students are burdened with significant debt in exchange for a degree that prepares them for very little in the way of a vocation. It is for these reasons that I am a great advocate of apprenticeships. Such schemes offer young people the opportunity of vocation-specific training whilst avoiding the cost of college tuition fees – indeed, apprentices earn while they learn. Moreover, they are beneficial, not just for apprentices, but for the businesses that train them.

The benefits for businesses

Apprenticeships are known to have a positive impact on those businesses that sponsor them. For example, of those UK employers who have taken on apprentices, 90% report benefits to their businesses with 70% reporting that their apprentices improved the productivity or quality of their service or product.[1]

Significantly, 71% of UK apprentices stay with their employer once their training has ended, thus minimising the cost of recruitment.[2] A stable work-environment boosts employee well-being and productivity. In addition, a Swiss study found that employers spend around $3.4 billion annually training apprentices but earn $3.7 billion each year from their work during training.[3]

The apprenticeship route is flexible and employer friendly, allowing for the study of both sector specific and generic qualifications. It is clear that by sponsoring apprentices business are rewarded with a high-calibre, stable team, improved productivity and reduced costs.

Apprenticeships benefit the apprentice

Unlike a university or college degree, an apprenticeship does not lumber the trainee with the often crippling burden of financial debt. Indeed, many college and university students are forced to seek outside employment in order to fund their studies. Apprentices, however, are able to earn whilst they learn. Nor do apprentices “miss out” on a degree: a US apprentice credential is equivalent to a 2-4 year degree; in Germany they are broadly equivalent to degrees.[4]

Furthermore, apprentices in the US have an average starting salary of $50,000 a year,[5] which could increase by as much as 50% as the apprentice progresses and learns more skills.[6] In comparison, the average starting salary for university graduates is $45,473.[7]

Apprenticeship is not for everyone

Apprenticeship will not suit everyone. In order for it to be worthwhile, the apprentice must be almost certain of their career choice. At university, there are opportunities to explore different fields of study and plenty of time in which to do so. This allows students to evaluate which career path they wish to take in the future.

The university experience is very much based around education: whilst this education may not in fact lead directly into a career, the common features of that education – research, essay writing, team work, public speaking – are in themselves excellent general training for many careers. And there are some career paths which require a degree, such as medicine or architecture, and cannot be accessed entirely via apprenticeship. And of course, for many the “experience” of university holds great appeal.

Each to their own

Perhaps the choice between apprenticeship and university is simply a matter of “each to their own”. Nonetheless, I believe that university is too often presented as the only route for school-leavers. For some, who are certain of their career choice, and eager to start working and earning, choosing to become an apprentice is an ideal option.

Despite the many advantages of sponsoring apprenticeship, many businesses are not aware of the benefits of such schemes (this is particularly and worryingly true in the US, which has a tiny number of apprentices per capita compared to many European countries, and a projected shortage of 5 million skilled workers by 2020)[8]. Skilled employees that are prepared to stay put are rare indeed, and those which boost productivity and reduce costs are rarer still. Apprenticeships are, in my opinion, the unsung heroes of further education; it’s time they got more of the limelight.