Earn while you learn - is an apprenticeship the right option for you?

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As university numbers continue to rise, it's easy to forget that there are alternatives for young people wishing to continue their education - and older ones looking for a career change.

Apprenticeships too are booming, with around 20,000 available at any one time through the National Apprenticeship Service, in 170 different industries from construction to veterinary nursing and accountancy. More than half a million people embarked on an apprenticeship in the academic year 2012-13.


While there's a perception that apprenticeships are only for the young, this is by no means the case. Indeed, more than 34,000 people aged over 50 have started an apprenticeship in the last year alone.

"Apprenticeships lead to life-changing career opportunities with real progression and are available to people of all ages," says Karen Woodward, director of apprenticeships at the National Apprenticeship Service. "Apprentices gain nationally recognised qualifications and enjoy greater earnings potential over the course of their career."

Apprenticeships last for between one and four years, and are open to anyone over sixteen, with apprentices working for at least 30 hours a week and. The basic pay isn't great - £2.68 per hour for under-19s and first year apprentices, rising to £5.03 for 19- and 20-year-olds and £6.31 for those aged 21 and over - although many make a lot more. Either way, it's a lot more lucrative than taking out a student loan to fund a degree.

There are three levels of qualification. An Intermediate level is rated as equivalent to five GCSEs at grades A* to C, and Advanced as equivalent to two A-levels. Recently, a Higher grade was introduced, aimed at management or professional roles and, potentially, rating as equivalent to a degree.

This is the route that Luke Constable, from Billericay in Essex, chose to help him achieve his aim of working in finance. After taking A-Levels in business, ICT and English language at college,
he had been intending to go to university - but says he realised that an apprenticeship was a better option.

"They are a great way of getting your foot in the door. You get paid, get a strong qualification, you don't build up debt and you develop as a person," he says. "Everyone talks about the rising prices of university but for me, even if university was free I would still have chosen what I'm doing now."

He's now with professional services company PwC, working in its tax services department.

"I correspond with clients, deal with queries, attend briefings,
analyse spreadsheets, run reports and work on projects. The best part for me is the balance that I get - I am paid a competitive salary and supported fully through exams that are completely relevant to my job," he says.

"The networks and relationships I will have built up by the time I qualify, mixed with my experience and qualifications, will be invaluable compared to a degree."

According to the National Apprenticeship Service, 86 percent of apprentices get a job at the end of their stint, with two thirds staying with the same employer - and a third getting a promotion within a year.

And, says the Centre for Economics and Business Research, employers view qualified apprentices as 15 percent more employable than those with other qualifications. Indeed, a Higher Apprenticeship equates to extra lifetime earnings of more than £150,000, comparable to those of university graduates.

A recent study of the City & Guilds Top 100 Apprenticeship Employers shows that, on average, 30 percent of their company's senior management positions are filled by former apprentices.
Over half said that on average it took less than five years for an apprentice to reach a management position in their firm, with only a third saying the same for non-apprentices.

"Through learning on the job, apprentices develop skills which are directly relevant to how our business works," says Damian Brown of BT. "They know the organisation inside out, which brings huge benefits when making business decisions and managing people. This is why so many employers, including BT have entrusted senior management positions to former apprentices."

The best place to start looking is on the National Apprenticeship Service website, which lists around 20,000 vacancies. In the last couple of months, for example, Premier Inn has advertised there for 2,000 apprentices and Nestle for another 1,900. Apprenticeships aren't a walk-in, but with around ten applications per place the odds are better than for many jobs.

On March 3, National Apprenticeship Week kicks off, and in the meantime communications workshops are being held around the country to enable employers to promote their activities and advise potential apprentices on their options.

"National Apprenticeship Week is a fantastic opportunity to shine the spotlight on apprenticeships, and how they help employers grow their own talent and provide a great opportunity for apprentices to earn while they learn," says Woodward.