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Apprenticeships: Everything you need to know

The pandemic has made getting work experience even harder. Apprenticeships could be key to getting that first step in your chosen career

Think apprenticeships and the tendency is to think of butchers or carpenters and learning a craft on the job.

While learning on the job remains at the heart of the idea, the modern scope of industries, trades and careers covered by apprenticeships has expanded exponentially in recent years.

And experts agree that the need for reskilling and changing careers following the Covid-19 pandemic means apprenticeships have a vital role in the recovery of a jobs market hit by spiralling redundancies and job losses.

Spencer Mehlman, the founder and managing director of the National Skills Agency. “I think apprenticeships are really important, I think they are going to help a lot of people potentially change their career path into sectors that are going to be busier given the current and the future climate.

“People that might have been in hospitality and retail may well be looking at changing and becoming more aligned to technology-led roles. And that may well mean picking up an apprenticeship in one of those key areas.”

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The latest Department for Education figures show apprenticeship starts were down to 91,100 between August and October 2020 – a drop of almost a quarter on the same period last year.

But apprenticeships remain important in the ongoing Covid-19 recovery. The Big Issue has all the information on all the different types of apprenticeships and how you can get started to boost your career.

What is an apprenticeship?

Essentially an apprenticeship combines the opportunity to learn, train and earn qualifications with paid work experience.

The idea is to offer all the advantages of education alongside vital experience of a workplace, craft or industry to give the apprentice the best chance of moving forward in their chosen career.

Apprenticeships are designed to be flexible with at least 20 per cent of time spent learning at a college or university or from another training provider while the rest of the time is spent earning and applying skills picked up in the classroom on the job.

What are the benefits of apprenticeships?

While getting into university can be a challenge, particularly for those on low incomes, and student debt remains daunting, apprenticeships can offer a more affordable alternative.

As apprenticeships can last for a shorter amount of time than a university degree, they can give a more flexible learning experience. This is vital during the current Covid disruption to the job market when many of the workers from the badly-hit hospitality or retail industries may be looking to reskill into more future-proofed industries, such as technology or logistics.

All apprenticeships offer the chance of gaining a qualification once they have been completed – some which can be equivalent to a degree – and often apprenticeships can lead to a full-time job too.

Even if they don’t offer direct employment, apprenticeships can give a valuable foot in the door and offer the chance to build contacts, make connections and a boost to the CV to find a role elsewhere.

As the National Skills Agency’s Spencer Mehlman puts it, that experience can be a valuable head start over those in higher education.

“I think that in the current climate what you want to do is understand what the playing field looks like – don’t just run off and head off to university without looking at what the alternatives are like.

“Universities are undoubtedly very good for certain skill sets but you can end up picking up thousands worth of debt and coming out the other end with a degree that’s not necessarily helpful in the workplace.

“With an apprenticeship, you’re earning money from day one, you’re likely to have a decent job at the end of the apprenticeship, you’re working towards qualifications and you’ve got three years’ worth of valuable experience ahead of somebody coming out of university.”

While the typical image of an apprentice may conjure up visions of youngsters getting their first start in a trade, apprenticeships are now available in a wide variety of industries and sectors.

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Conor Cotton, commercial director at apprenticeships site Not Going To Uni, told The Big Issue that apprenticeships remain a focus for the Westminster Government, citing the November announcement of a Space Engineering Technician apprenticeship to boost jobs.

Cotton said: “The good thing is when you look at the government’s exit strategy from coronavirus, there is a huge focus on apprenticeships and employing more young people. Financially, they’re incentivising them, which is huge, positive for the market.”

Peter Mucklow, director of apprenticeships at the Education and Skills Funding Agency, agrees. Unveiling the National Apprenticeship Week 2021, Mucklow said: “The diversity of career options and industries available now, through apprenticeships, is outstanding.”

How long is an apprenticeship?

Apprenticeships can vary in length but must be at least 12 months and can go on for up to six years depending on whether the placement is part-time or full-time.

A full-time apprenticeship usually encompasses 30 hours a week of working, plus one day of study although the exact breakdown will depend on the employer and the nature of the qualification the apprentice is working towards.

What level of apprenticeships can I do?

There are apprenticeships available for qualifications ranging from GCSE level all the way up to master’s degrees.

Intermediate level apprenticeships – or level two as they are also known – are equivalent to GCSEs while Advanced level placements – or level three – will return a qualification that is comparable to A-levels.

Higher apprenticeships are referred to as level four or five – with the former equivalent to a foundation degree while the latter spans a foundation degree or the first year of an undergraduate bachelor’s degree.

Finally, there are degree apprenticeships, known as level six or level seven apprenticeships. At level six, an apprentice will earn the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. Level seven is comparable to a master’s degree.

However, it is important to note that apprenticeships are intended to be flexible so qualifications may fall in between two levels while some roles may give the option of a degree qualification, others might not.

It’s important to check the level of an apprenticeship before starting one and to assess what level is required to boost career progress long-term.

For some job-hunters that might even mean taking a step back, according to Not Going To Uni’s Conor Cotton.

He said: “We’re seeing an increase in the number of graduates who have graduated from university with a degree but going backwards in the sense of going and looking for apprenticeships.

“But that shows you how attractive these apprenticeships are even to grads at the moment. I think there’s a lot of young people sitting there thinking maybe I made the wrong choice, or maybe I need to retrain.”

How much does an apprenticeship pay?

Earnings vary depending on the role, the level and the industry but there is a minimum amount that apprentices can be paid as well as benefits they are legally entitled to.

This, too, can differ depending on age. The minimum wage for an apprentice under 19 or any apprentice in their first year is £4.15 per hour.

Once the apprentice is over the age of 19 and beyond their first year of study, they must be paid the national minimum wage for their age group. For 18-to-20 year olds that means £6.45 per hour, rising to £8.20 for those aged between 21 and 24 years of age and £8.72 for apprentices aged 25 and over.

That pay is not just covering time spent in work but also for time spent training to and there is an entitlement to a statutory minimum of 20 days paid holiday per year plus bank holidays.

However, it should be noted that all of these figures are a minimum and employers may choose to pay a higher rate.

Do employers get paid for having an apprentice?

Employers can be paid for providing apprenticeships through the Apprenticeship Levy – if they have a pay bill of less than £3 million each year.

These smaller businesses are just required to pay five per cent of the cost of training and assessing the apprentice with the government picking up the rest of the bill up to the funding band maximum, which currently can mean anywhere between £2,500 to £27,000.

For apprentices who started before April 1 2019, firms must pay slightly more, covering 10 per cent of the training cost with the government paying 90 per cent.

For bigger businesses, they must pay the levy but will some receive funds to spend on training and assessing apprentices.

Employers are also able to claim an incentive payment for taking on an apprentice. They are entitled to £2,000 for hiring an apprentice between August 1 2020 and March 31 2020.

How to apply for apprenticeships?

There are plenty of places to find an apprenticeship. The first port of call should be to the Government’s own apprenticeship site, whether you are in England, Scotland or Wales.

Sites like Not Going to Uni offer thousands of apprenticeship opportunities to browse, as do Get My First Job and the university and college admissions service Ucas.

There are also apprenticeships to find on The Big Issue’s Job site, put together with jobs board Adzuna. So get searching!