Marjana Uddin cancelled her place at university to become an apprentice paralegal

Promising the benefits of a degree with none of the debt, apprenticeships on the government’s payroll-funded scheme are more competitive than ever, yet the number of starts has dropped by a quarter this year

Apprenticeships are an absolute boon for employers. They are a way to plug skills gaps, attract and retain talent, and bring fresh thinking into your firm. Little wonder, then, that more than half of companies polled by the Institute of Student Employers said they recruited apprentices last year, and apprentice and school-leaver recruitment was 50% higher than in 2017, a much faster rate than the growth in graduate hiring.

BT, for example, tripled annual apprentice recruitment between 2016/17 and 2017/18, from 350 to 1,100 apprentices. Ann Potterton, BT’s head of apprenticeships, says there are several advantages to taking on young blood. “We get ambitious, driven, positive, enthusiastic people who value the opportunity. They pay that back in many different ways.”

One example is through their loyalty – BT retains 85% of its apprentices. Half of those are promoted at least once within three years, says Potterton. “We have CEOs [of individual business units] who started as apprentices.”

Claire Paul, the BBC’s director of leadership and new talent, sees apprenticeships as a way to bring crucial digital technology skills into the public service broadcaster. “Young apprentices have an enormous amount of innate digital talent and experience that is on a different scale to someone who is 40-50, for example – they grew up in a digital world,” she says. “When I joined the BBC 30 years ago, if you weren’t a university graduate, there was not a door to get in. That’s incredibly – and refreshingly – different in today’s world.”

For apprentices themselves, there are abundant opportunities – without the debt associated with a traditional university route. Marjana Uddin, 20, does not regret cancelling her university place to become an apprentice paralegal at the BBC in 2016. After two years on the scheme in London, she started on the broadcaster’s solicitor degree apprenticeship, which pays her salary, plus university fees.

She’ll finish the six-year scheme in 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in law and will take the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE). Uddin says she’s satisfied with the workplace training she’s received. “I have exposure to legal drafting, research and quite high-profile cases and deals.”

For instance, she worked on the production agreement for The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan, a BBC TV series. “You get so much more exposure [than university students],” says Uddin. “You really have the upper hand.”

Yet, the number of apprenticeship starts in 2017/18 plunged by a quarter year-on-year to 375,800. Business blames the complexity and rigidity of the apprenticeship levy. Introduced in 2017, the levy makes employers with a pay bill of more than £3m each year set aside 0.5% of their payroll for training.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, says employers need greater scope to spend levy cash on training tailored to bespoke needs. Apprenticeships are based on standards created by employer groups, but Dawe says the approval process for new frameworks is much slower than it should be.

The levy was billed as a way to create 3m apprenticeships by 2020 and improve the UK’s poor productivity record. But employers warn the target looks unlikely to be met.

To increase uptake, the government has rolled out substantial reforms. Big employers can [from April] invest up to 25% of their levy funds to support apprentices in their supply chain. And the amount small firms spend on apprenticeships will be halved to 5%, with the government paying the remaining 95%.

Edwin Morgan, the Institute of Directors’ policy director, says the changes are likely to help tackle the levy’s problems, but there should be a drive to raise awareness of the reforms to help increase apprenticeship starts. Employers in England spent fewer than 10% of their levy funds in the scheme’s first year. Unspent money is lost after 24 months.

As awareness grows, Neil Carberry, CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, is confident that a swelling number of employers will start to reap the benefits of apprenticeships. “They are really very effective at bringing skills into a business and launching great careers.”

Key facts about apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are the best of both worlds: they combine hands-on workplace training with academic schooling, setting you up for a successful career.

Apprenticeships are available in virtually every sector you can think of: from business and engineering to healthcare, law, media and more. “Apprenticeships are on fire right now,” says Stephen Isherwood, chief executive at the Institute of Student Employers. “There is so much variety to choose from, and new programmes are constantly being created.”

Supermarket chain Aldi, for example, employs more than 800 apprentices in the UK each year across the company, including in stores and at distribution centres.

Employers offer apprenticeships at four different levels, for more than 1,500 different job roles in 170 industries, usually lasting for between one and five years. Intermediate apprenticeships are considered equivalent to five GCSE passes. Advanced apprenticeships are comparable to two A-levels. Higher apprenticeships are equivalent to a foundation, or more advanced degree.

Degree apprenticeships lead to a bachelor’s or master’s degree. They are run by both training providers and employers that pay a salary and the apprentice’s tuition fees.

Kate Self, 20, is a BT TV and digital media degree apprentice, based at London’s BT Tower. She says: “I’ve got broadcast experience, I’ve got to see different bits of the business, and I’ve built my confidence, without getting into university debt.”

The current minimum wage rate for an apprentice under 19, or in their first year – regardless of age – is £3.70 per hour. Those 19 or over who have finished the first year are entitled to the national minimum wage, which from April 2019 is £6.15 for those aged 18-20, £7.70 if you’re 21-24, or £8.21 per hour for those 25 and above.

The best apprenticeships, however, typically pay annual salaries of between £17,000-£20,000, but competition is extremely fierce. Intermediate apprenticeships usually have no entry requirements, but higher level programmes generally require academic qualifications and/or some work experience.

Richard Thornton, communications director at Aldi UK, advises applicants to be hard-working, motivated and genuine if they want to be successful: “Let your personality shine through.”