School and college offer a wide variety of options when it comes to further education. It is not surprising therefore that many are confused about which path is the best for them. The issue is compounded by a myriad of voices advising you one way or another; teachers, parents, friends, blogs. Schools and colleges usually encourage the pursuit of A-levels, both because they are widely recognised qualification and because it reflects better on the school if more register for them. However, these highly academic qualifications don’t suit everyone and it is always worth considering other options. Apprenticeships are such an alternative.

Apprenticeships offer the opportunity for paid vocational learning combined with some academic work. They provide thorough first-hand experience of a professional working environment that is difficult to replicate through internships. There are a range of reasons to choose an apprenticeship over another qualification, but the exact reason will vary on circumstances. At my company, Green Biologics Ltd (an industrial biotech company), we currently have two apprentices. Lewis Towart (Lab Technician Apprentice) goes into greater detail about his experience below and I spoke to Rachel Byrne (Analytical Chemistry Apprentice) about the process.

Rachel decided to pursue a Higher apprenticeship after already having completed A-levels. She explained her choice to me: “I wanted to do science, but I wasn’t sure that either a degree or a career in industry were right for me”. So, rather than commit to a (very expensive) degree, Rachel started looking at internships and stumbled upon the apprenticeship as an option. Now nearing the end of her two years, she says it was absolutely the right choice. “I now have two years full-time work experience, learned technical and soft skills, had the opportunity to attend additional training courses and am now a registered technician”. The experience of the apprenticeship has subsequently led her to pursue a degree in chemistry at Birmingham University.

A view from the inside – Lewis Towart

There are a lot of reasons why becoming an apprentice is a good option. One of the most common reasons is that people leaving school are looking for something different and more exciting instead of continuing the typical schooling route into A-levels. Apprenticeships give you a much more hands-on learning experience which suits some people better. They allow the apprentice to get real life work experience while also progressing towards a qualification. Being able to learn as you earn is very valuable, granting more independence, especially to school leavers. As an apprentice you will gain a lot of soft skills such as building confidence and developing communication skills which are very important as you will use them throughout your life. Apprenticeships are also very versatile with various levels available meaning that, no matter your level, there will be one suitable for you.

My role is an apprentice lab technician. This involves me maintaining the smooth running of the lab and varies from making media to ordering new lab supplies. The format for most apprenticeships – mine included – is having one day a week dedicated to attending classes and seminars. The rest of your time will be spent within the workplace. I have had the opportunity to work with a variety of different people at a variety of different levels. Apprenticeships are very unique as they allow you to gain on the job experience and still be able to progress through a course instead of just doing one or the other. This also makes the job much more engaging; being able to do something at work and later learn more about it in the course, or vice versa, is very rewarding.

After your apprenticeship is over there are many options you can consider. You can look for further education such as a higher level apprenticeship or a university degree. A lot of apprentices end up in full time employment, often within the same company. My apprenticeship has had its ups and downs – as with everything in life! – but I know that, when it ends, I will be very glad I chose to do one. The real world experience you will take with you will be and already is for me invaluable. The whole apprenticeship process has been, and will continue to be, a very positive time for me. Finally if someone was looking for something different and is fed up with the typical school environment, an apprenticeship will be perfect for you.

Industrial perspective – Laurence

At this point, you may be wondering why a company would spend money taking on an inexperienced and untested employee. The benefits for the business are varied and I spoke to Mohini Thite, Senior Analytical Chemist and organiser of apprenticeships at GBL to learn more. Mohini explains the initial impulse for some: “for us, apprenticeships are similar to the outreach and engagement we do. We get to directly encourage and develop a prospective scientist”. She adds that “it’s good for younger staff at the company to have the opportunity to train a new apprentice and it also allows us to train someone in the particular methods we use from scratch”. “Of course, it also reflects well on the company if the apprentice in question is well-trained when they move on to other jobs”.  Finally of course, apprenticeships do offer a chance for a company to employ someone full time at a lower-than-usual salary (typically the company pays the salary and the government any course fees). Apprenticeship pay varies dependent on the sector, but as highlighted by Rachel, however, the lower upfront pay is often augmented by opportunities for training courses and responsibilities that are not usually available to inexperienced younger people. 

Conclusions

Apprenticeships provide a viable alternative to the most well-known post-16 academic routes (A-levels, BTecs, university etc). They are not the only option but they are particularly useful for those who have struggled with the lack of a real-world, practical element to school education and are itching to try their hands in the world of work.

As demonstrated above, they can play a key role in helping you to decide whether to pursue a particular career path and will never be time wasted if you make the most of the opportunities available to you. 

For all those considering their options at the moment and awaiting exam results through the next week, good luck with your choices for the future!

You can find more information on apprenticeship roles currently available at findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk/apprenticeshipsearch

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