Challenge university: making a case for apprenticeships


It’s September and the new academic year is upon us. Children are going back to school, teenagers are starting their A-levels and more than a few 18-year-olds are frantically filling out student loan forms, eagerly anticipating the freedom of university.

Five years ago, my September was a lot different. I had finished school, but wasn’t experiencing the angst of moving to a new city or worrying about the prospect of more exams. Instead, I’d already been working a full-time job for four months as part of an apprenticeship.

Like a lot of young people, I knew roughly what I wanted to do (something creative and IT-focused), but I found that the structure of standardised education wasn’t for me. After looking for a trainee position I was directed towards an apprenticeship scheme and quickly got on board.

I was lucky to find an alternative that appealed to me, but for a lot of my friends the final year at school was geared only towards university talks and UCAS applications – my teachers barely mentioned any other routes. Unfortunately, it’s a common story; talented and ambitious school leavers are told it’s either university or bust. And when all is said and done, many are left with mountains of debt amid a struggle to gain employment. Let me be clear: I’m by no means bashing university – I just think we should do more to highlight other options.

Luckily, alternative ways of breaking into the creative industry are gaining traction, such as D&AD New Blood’s SHIFT placement and the government’s push on apprenticeships. Students and experts alike are slowly recognising that university may not be the answer for everyone. I believe that apprenticeships are evidence of what young people can achieve if they choose to learn while they earn. They can take you anywhere and help you rise to the top of any industry. Today, there’s only so far a 2:1 can take you – employers want to see evidence of experience instead.

So, whether you’re about to start an apprenticeship yourself, head to university or if you’re still undecided, I thought I would share some of the benefits and pitfalls I experienced.

Get in. Go far.

The government deems apprenticeships as a high-quality option for young people who want to get in and go far. Statistics show that 90% of employers and apprentices are satisfied with their programme and that around 75% of employers find that apprentices improve productivity or the quality of their services. So, the figures stack up – but does the experience?

I found the main benefit of my apprenticeship was was being treated as a valued member of the team. As apprenticeships are designed by industry professionals, who are in the best place to know the skills young people need to succeed, you learn exactly what you need from the best of the best. As a result, you gain valuable real-life experience and make an impact on the business from day one. Starting at such a young age also means you build up experience rapidly and early on in your career – I’ve only just turned 23 and I’ve already worked at three companies and gained five years of experience.

My apprenticeship also taught me a whole range of soft skills. Being in my fair share of meetings, I quickly learned how to behave professionally and how to collaborate on a range of projects. It has also taught me how to remain self-motivated – setting and meeting my own and client deadlines.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, my apprenticeship enabled me to earn while I learned. Earning a full-time wage from the age of 18 has allowed me to save money without the stacks of debt university students have to contend with.

Not all plain sailing

As with any path, professional and personal, there are pitfalls.

Many people go to university as a social experience. To meet new people, experience a new place (and a new nightlife) and to live independently, away from home. Inevitably with an apprenticeship you lose out on the “university experience”. There’s no mid-week clubbing or lengthy revision breaks because you have a job to do and money to earn. And it’s much the same for holidays. Once you’re in a job, there’s no time for three-month summer breaks or lie-ins.

There’s also still unfortunately a lot of stigma around apprenticeships. Many older generations perceive them negatively as they associate them with the version of apprenticeships they knew growing up. As a result, some employers may turn their nose up at applicants with an apprenticeship and use it as a justification to pay them less. Luckily, I completed my apprenticeship under a great mentor in a good company who paid me a fantastic wage – but it can sometimes come down to the luck of the draw.

New ventures

Despite the potential negatives, I wouldn’t change anything about my route. Quite frankly, I’m not sure if it was luck or just good judgement, but pursuing this avenue got me to a place I’m happy with, doing work I enjoy. I am more stable financially and professionally than others my age, and my CV is brimming with experience.

Good luck to everyone who is starting a new chapter this month. Whatever you decide to do, make the most of it and grab every opportunity – if you do that, you won’t go far wrong.

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