The low-down on apprenticeships

If you’ve just finished your GCSEs and are keen to get out into the world of work, you might consider applying for an apprenticeship.

What is an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is a type of job you can get from the age of 16 where you work full-time for a company but are also trained at the same time. You earn a salary and are treated like an employee, giving you all the independence and responsibility that you’d get if you went straight into a job, but at least 20% of your time will be spent in training, learning the hands-on skills you’ll need to progress in your chosen career.

You can choose to do an apprenticeship anytime from the age of 16 – there’s no upper age limit so it doesn’t have to be straight after your GCSEs. They can take anything from one to five years to complete, but at the end you’ll be fully trained and qualified in your chosen role.

Apprenticeships are organised into different levels which are equivalent to traditional educational levels, like this:

  • Intermediate (Level 2) = GCSE level
  • Advanced (Level 3) = A-level
  • Higher (Levels 4 – 7) = Foundation degree and above
  • Degree (Levels 6 and 7) = Bachelors or masters degree

Entry requirements will differ depending on the industry, job role and level you’re interested in. If you’ve just finished your GCSEs you’ll probably want to look at Intermediate or Advanced apprenticeships.

To give you a taste of what doing an apprenticeship could be like for you, we’ve caught up with three apprentices all working in very different industries. Read on to hear their stories and find out why doing an apprenticeship was the right move for them.

Gemma

It makes sense because you’re experiencing what you learn on a daily basis.

Gemma has just completed her Level 3 apprenticeship in Business Administration with KPMG in London. She went into her apprenticeship at 16, straight after her GCSEs.

Gemma’s course lasted for 15 months. Each week she worked four days in the office as a team secretary, and the fifth day was set aside for studying. Her course was made up of online lectures and materials which tied into the tasks and projects that she was working on in the office – so she got the opportunity to apply what she was learning straight away.

This suited Gemma, as she explains: “At GCSE, I found it difficult to study consistently for two years. An apprenticeship includes practical work at the same time so it makes sense because you’re experiencing what you learn on a daily basis. It was refreshing.”

Unlike most of her friends, who went on to do A-levels, Gemma wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after her GCSEs but says that, with her apprenticeship, she has achieved “a qualification that is transferable into any company, department or career” that she might want to go into in the future.

Her favourite thing about doing an apprenticeship is “the fact that you get to meet so many new people you wouldn’t usually get the opportunity to meet – people who’ve worked all over the world.” It also "teaches you to push your limits," she says. "Your team knows you don’t know anything so they put you in situations where you’re going to grow and get experience."

In fact, Gemma enjoyed her apprenticeship so much that she's now doing a degree apprenticeship at KPMG. "Think outside of the box," Gemma advises, "You don’t’ always have to follow the strict sequence of GCSEs – A-levels – uni. There’s such a range of apprenticeships out there and it’s not always what you think, so do your research and you’ll find something tailored to you."

Gemma at work
Gemma is the only person she knew from school who didn't go on to do her A-levels.

Varis

You’re learning. And you get paid. And you’re enjoying it!

Varis is an apprentice silver spinner with The Goldsmiths' Centre in London. He makes bespoke silver pieces, such as trophies.

Varis’s Level 3 apprenticeship is five years long and is structured quite differently from Gemma’s. Varis spent the first year in college completing a foundation course. He then chose a specialism and will work full time for the next four years becoming an expert in that area. During this time, he revisits college at regular intervals to learn more about other skills, such as enamelling or jewellery making, which is really useful, he says, because “if you know how they’re done and you’ve tried them, you have a better understanding of what your colleagues can do.”

Varis says he never enjoyed school: “It was never my thing – I just don’t like sitting down. I could never learn from reading whereas if I do it, I will learn it and retain it.”

To qualify for his apprenticeship, Varis didn’t need any specific qualifications. He attended an assessment centre where “it was more about proving how good you are at working with your hands”. He had achieved two A*’s in Art and Textiles, so practical skills were his strength: “I enjoy making things and always have,” he says.

“If you enjoy working and learning on the job, you’re not going to get anything better than an apprenticeship. In college you learn more theory, but some things you can only learn from experience. You’re learning. And you get paid. And you’re enjoying it!"

Varis's work is very practical and hands-on.

Jade

As far as future job prospects go, I really am one step ahead of other people.

Jade’s path was a little different. She did her GCSEs and A-Levels, but didn’t know what she wanted to do afterwards, so she chose to work and travel for a few years. Jade knew that she was passionate about conservation though, so looked for a course that would help her to gain work in the environmental sector, and ended up applying for an apprenticeship in conservation.

“An apprenticeship was the right choice for me,” explains Jade, “because I’m a very practical person. I learn best when I can be actively doing something and figuring it out myself, so learning on the job was ideal.”

Jade’s apprenticeship is very hands-on. In the first seven months of her two-year apprenticeship, she was in college one day per fortnight. She now works five days a week, learning on the job and completing coursework to document her experiences and knowledge. At the end of her apprenticeship, Jade will have a Level 2 qualification in environmental conservation, which is the equivalent to a GCSE.

“I already have A-levels,” says Jade, “so this is a ‘step back’ for me, but the experience and knowledge I’m gaining during work is instrumental for me and my future. As far as future job prospects go, I really am one step ahead of other people. I have the experience of working in the field which most people have to try to get after their qualification.”

Jade works outdoors a lot, learning on the job.

The challenges

Be under no illusion: working and training at the same time will be challenging, but rewarding.

For Gemma, the most challenging part of her apprenticeship was learning time-management."You’re having to juggle a full-time, demanding job role and study at the same time," she says, "but if you put your mind to it, anything is possible."

Gemma also found communication with her colleagues tricky at the start: "I thought they were super-professional and didn’t have time to speak or explain things to me," but she soon realised how supportive her team were and grew in confidence.

For Varis, it’s the written components of the apprenticeship that he doesn’t like. “I’m not very good at the whole paperwork side,” he says, “We have to submit a quarterly review and I’ve never been good at just sitting down and writing things.”

For Jade, the most challenging part has been closing the knowledge gap. She explains, “It’s difficult sometimes to ask a question about something you don’t understand when you’re surrounded by experts in the field, but I’ve learnt that they really do want to help you learn, and everyone has to start from somewhere!”

If you’re interested in doing an apprenticeship, there are lots of different opportunities to explore. You can search for them on the government website or UCAS.

What should I do after my exams? Your options at 15/16
What will I need to get into uni? Apprenticeships and college options
Can I mix A-levels and vocational qualifications?
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