Why get a degree, when you could get an apprenticeship?

Mariano Mamertino
Young Apprentices Begin Working At Cammell Laird Shipyard
There's so much more to apprenticeships than the wrench-wielding stereotype (Source: Getty)

The enduring image of the apprentice – that of a wrench-wielding, grease-stained teenager learning a manual trade – is looking more anachronistic by the week.

Apprenticeships are now available in a raft of white-collar professions – such as computing, architecture, and engineering – that for decades were off limits to non-graduates.

In part, this evolution is due to an expansion of the number of apprenticeships available. Spurred on by the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy – a tax on larger employers used to fund new apprenticeships – the apprenticeship model has been embraced by the service sector as well as the traditional manual trades.

The two most common apprenticeships now are in business administration and customer service – not a wrench in sight.

Attitudes are shifting too, with a recent study by Indeed and Britain Thinks finding that Britons view the creation of more apprenticeships as one of the three best ways to make the UK a good place to work and find a job.

But is the rising popularity of apprenticeships coming at the expense of traditional university degree courses?

Figures released this month by the university admissions service Ucas revealed that the number of people applying to study at UK universities dropped by four per cent this year – the first fall in five years.

While the five per cent drop in applications from EU students is being blamed on Brexit, the decline in interest from British applicants is likely due to the rising cost of getting a degree.

Tuition fees in England will increase to £9,250 this year, with student loan interest rates also rising from 4.6 per cent to 6.1 per cent.

The average student now racks up debts of £50,000 during a typical three year degree course. By contrast, apprentices are paid to study on the job, completing their studies with both employment experience and earnings behind them.

It’s still widely assumed that a worker will earn more in their lifetime if they have a degree. However, official analysis of the latest Labour Force Survey suggests that apprentices who’ve gone onto well-paid jobs are steadily eroding this “graduate premium”. Last year it revealed that 29 per cent of UK graduates were earning less than the average non-graduate who had completed an apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships are obviously not right for everyone, and there are clear benefits to going to university. But with more apprenticeships opening the door to well-paid careers, they are increasingly seen as offering an equally attractive trajectory to degree courses.

Demographics are changing too, and the modern apprentice is not always young and straight out of school.

Government figures reveal that one in five of those who started an apprenticeship in England in the past year were aged 35 or older.

While Indeed’s job listings show that the employers most likely to recruit apprentices are still in the installation, maintenance, and repair sectors, it’s the adoption of apprenticeships by Britain’s dominant service sector that is proving decisive.

With the sector accounting for almost 80 per cent of the UK economy, its embrace of apprenticeships is turbo-charging, not just choice, but perceptions too. The government has set the ambitious target of creating three million apprenticeships by 2020, and it’s likely the snowball effect of greater awareness and acceptance will boost the numbers further.

While it’s too early to say if this year’s fall in university applications is a blip, or the start of a longer term decline, degree courses now face genuine competition from apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships are here to stay and will continue to attract growing numbers of ambitious people looking to combine their studies with a salary – rather than debt.

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