top of page

Apprenticeship or University? Which is best?

Is an apprenticeship more appealing than a degree? Are apprenticeships the smart decision for the talented looking to get a head start in business? It’s National Apprenticeship Week and this is a question I have been mulling over for a while. It came up most recently in a conversation with my nephew, who is set on university next year, having carefully considered all his options. My interest in apprenticeships predates my nephew however, when I hired an apprentice back in my corporate days. And it is from having this front row seat to how the system worked in our organisation, that really sparked an enduring interest and support.

What is an Apprenticeship?

In my own language, it’s learning by doing, via paid employment. As opposed to learning the theory in the lecture hall and then later applying it in the workplace. But additional to the doing, is the classroom. Apprentices today spend at least 20% of their working time in the classroom and graduate with not only a nationally recognised qualification, but also anywhere between one and four years practical experience.

The Pros and Cons for the Apprentice

The obvious one is about money of course. I was the last year of undergraduate intake prior to tuition fees being introduced in 1998. Even without the burden of up to £27,750 in fees for a three year course, I managed to leave uni with an impressive debt (I threw myself into a new found social life!). It wasn’t something I overly worried about, it seemed the norm, but I had to chip away at it for many years. My eyes water at the sums facing today’s graduates.

An apprentice is a salaried employee, so from day one, purely financially, they are on a very different road. Couple that with the fact that the qualification they are working towards is sponsored by the employer, then does it become a bit of a no-brainer? My commercial brain thinks so.

And finally, many, not all, secure a permanent role with the initial company. Those that don’t, have an immediate attraction in the labour market as a skilled worker.

I approached my former business apprentice, now graduated, for his top 3 Pros. Here’s what he said:

· Earn while you learn!

· Experience & skills gained means you’re accelerated ahead of others/competition in [your] age demographic

· Avoidance of cost. Tuition fees, or not having to move away from home and minimising cost of living.

Can there be a downside? The only one I can come up with is when I think back to what I learnt from my three years at university, outside of lectures and tutorials. It sounds so naff to say life skills, and yet I can’t come up with a better term. The experiences are not something I can quantify and yet they helped shape who I am today and cemented friendships that endure more than twenty years on. Yes, we worked hard, and we were also incredibly silly, and I maintain this silliness was a necessary rite of passage. I had nine o’clock lectures 5 days a week, but it was always with the knowledge that I could grab a nap in the afternoon, if the night before had been a little lively shall we say. The idea of holding down a serious career at this time in my life seems utter madness and increases the respect and admiration I already have for anyone who does thrive with this route.

It seems my thoughts were in line with someone who has experienced it – here’s his cons:

· [you] Lose out on the social aspect [of being full time at university]

· Many hard hours early on in your career, with the combination of on the job working and study

· It’s difficult for an 16-18 year old to make an assured decision about a career path so early on with lack of knowledge

I can expand from these. Because it’s asking people to grow up fast and take on some pretty big responsibilities. While your mates are out partying, you have a set start and full day tomorrow, where there is an expectation for you to perform. A hangover, or exhaustion through self-imposed lack of sleep, in the professional environment won’t go unnoticed and reputation really is important. You have been employed to do a real role and as such people are counting on you. I was a demanding manager, I knew this person was smart and could deliver, so my expectation was that he would. That’s tough to be on the receiving end when you are just starting out and as it always goes, whether fair or not, the better you are, the more you are relied on and the more is expected of you.

Studying and working IS tough. Did it myself to achieve my professional qualification in procurement and when you have already had an intense eight hours, or more, it’s super hard to motivate yourself to get the books out.

And really, who does know who they want to be at 16, or 18? I didn’t, not a chance and through my professional coaching, my coaching clients continue to address this question and reinvent themselves well into established careers.

The Employer’s perspective

This needs an article to itself. Let me sum it up from my perspective as the hiring manager.

When you have in front of you an individual who wants to learn what you do, why you do it, how you do it, and even questions if you should be doing it this way (or at all!), then you have gold dust. I can mentor and train you how to procure (insert your own discipline here) and I can coach you as an individual, but I can’t make you feel something you don’t feel. Having someone who just does the work without the passion is something we, as the leader, see, feel, and discuss. My job is therefore infinitely easier and enjoyable when there is someone who wants to learn, wants to change the status quo, and wants to do it better and bigger than I have. Great leaders want their people to excel beyond them.

Being able to guide someone at the beginning of their career is a privilege and an apprentice has not chosen the easy road, they are workers, they are committed and determined. That’s worth an awful lot to team dynamics and company culture, not to mention the bottom line.

I am not alone in my views, with more and more people choosing this route and employers backing them. What seems to have formally fallen out of favour as a respected route for the talented to get ahead, is again experiencing a resurgence with entrepreneurs stepping into this space, recognising the potential. One such, Euan Blair, whose interview I read in the I newspaper. His 2016 start-up, matching apprentices with employers, is now valued at £650 million and cites Morgan Stanley, Mercedes Benz and Meta amongst it’s clients, to name a few.

The student will have the final say and it must be for them to decide which route is for them. What’s clear is just as universities broadened their appeal through more vocational offerings, apprenticeships are not only holding their own, they appear to be asserting their authority in the talent space. I, for one, am an advocate.

22 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page