Apprentices may start at the bottom of the career ladder but, with further training and support, they can make it to the top, writes Janet Murray
When Jenny Westworth told her teachers that she was thinking about an apprenticeship, they tried to talk her out of it. With a strong academic record and good predictions for her A-Level grades, not going to university would be a waste of her talents, they said.
Now 23, she is a mechanical manufacturing engineer at BAE Systems with Level 3 (A-Level equivalent) apprenticeship in aerospace engineering and is just coming to the end of a Higher National Diploma (HND), which she plans to top up to a degree over the next two years, all fully funded by her employer.
“The company is really good at understanding what our development needs are, what we want to do and how it will benefit not just us, but the company as a whole,” she says. “After I did my apprenticeship, they sat down with me and talked about my personal development and where I wanted to go in the future.”
Her long-term aim is to go into management, for which she is likely to need post-graduate qualifications, through which the company should also be able to support her.
There are countless opportunities for progression through higher apprenticeships
Depending on the type and level of qualifications, apprenticeships generally take between one and four years to complete. And, under government regulations introduced last April, apprentices must receive up to 280 hours of guided learning – time in education and training away from their usual duties – each year.
While there are currently no such regulations for those who have recently completed an apprenticeship, gaining the initial qualification is just the start. Having secured an intermediate (Level 2 or GCSE equivalent) or advanced (Level 3 or A-Level standard) qualification, there are countless opportunities for progression through higher apprenticeships, vocational courses such as higher national diplomas or degree courses.
Clearly this can be more of a challenge for apprentices working in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which may not have the budget or resources to fund additional qualifications.
Still, as Sasha Hone, a stylist and former apprentice at the Stuart Holmes hair salon in Cheltenham, points out, progression is not necessarily about further study. Having completed Level 2 last year, she is currently working towards a Level-3 apprenticeship in hairdressing, but says the professional development opportunities provided by her employer are equally – if not more valuable – than amassing qualifications.
“There is a clear career structure from apprentices through to the most experienced stylists and colourists,” she says. “Whatever stage we’re at, we’re encouraged to aim for the next level of progress, and think about the training and support we might need to get there.”
But the government’s decision to introduce loans for A-Level equivalent courses for the over- 24s (at the same time as scrapping financial support for this age group), could hit SMEs – and the apprentices they employ – the hardest. Not only will learners have to take out loans, they could end up paying a lot more for their studies, meaning some apprentices, particularly those working at SMEs, may be less likely to consider further qualifications, such as higher apprenticeships.
And, over the last year, the National Apprenticeship Service has come under scrutiny about the quality, funding and short duration of apprenticeships – some of which, it emerged, were being delivered in as little as 12 weeks. This has prompted the government to introduce a minimum one-year duration for all apprenticeships.
But according to Peter Cobrin, national education director at Not Going To Uni, which offers advice and job opportunities for young people looking for an alternative to higher education, there are still many issues to be ironed out around progression routes for apprentices. While the introduction of a minimum training period for apprentices shows the government is taking the problem seriously, he warns against the prescriptive nature of the approach.
“We need clearer pathways, standardised progression routes by stage not age,” Mr Cobrin says. “And a far better information programme about apprenticeships.”
An Underground journey headed for the top
My name is Shauni O’Neill and I am 19.
Two years ago, I made the choice to leave school and pursue a career in transport through an apprenticeship. It was the best decision I have ever made.
I was a bright, enthusiastic and bubbly 16 year old who had a drive to do well. My role was public-facing, and I had to be able to communicate with customers and colleagues of all ages. I enjoyed the challenge of each new experience and always sought feedback so that I could improve.
When selecting my apprenticeship, I looked for somewhere with career prospects, which embraced a diverse workforce, and had exemplary training and support. I felt that these would be what I needed to become successful in my chosen sector. Transport for London offered all of this and more, so it was a perfect choice for me.
For two years I worked as an operational apprentice for London Underground. I was an all-rounder and tried hard to leave a positive impression everywhere I went.
As an apprentice I worked in each area of the operational business (stations, trains and service control). This gave me a unique view of how the organisation works.
I was the first apprentice ever to secure a placement at director level. It gave me something to aspire to: one day I want to be managing director of the company or even commissioner.
Throughout my apprenticeship, I made sure that I capitalised on every opportunity and, in July 2011, I was named National Apprentice of the Year. A few days later I met Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, which was a personal highlight for me.
When I completed my apprenticeship in rail transport operations in August 2011, I had gained valuable communication skills and grown in confidence. I am now training to become a train operator, having worked as a customer services assistant and a station supervisor.
As I have journeyed through the company, I have learnt how to develop professional relationships with my colleagues.
For me not going to university at 18 was the best choice. I am now independent and earning my own salary. I am also at the beginning of what I hope is going to be a fruitful career for many years.