Apprentice or graduate. Is it a simple choice?

Materials World magazine
3 Jul 2015

David Kirkham, Chief Executive of Low Carbon Sector Skills organisation, Employer First, considers the pros and cons of apprenticeships and degrees from the point of view of both the employer and the applicant.

When you work in the area of company skills, as we do at Employer First, you are confronted every day by the reality of the skills gaps that are facing UK industry. We come face-to-face with the issues as part of our work, which involves providing members with a skills diagnostic, highlighting where they have current deficits that can be tackled through recruitment or training.

We have all seen the frightening statistics from the Institute of Engineering and Technology, which forecast that 100,000 engineers a year will be needed just to stand still on workplace skills. It is only when one sees it in individual companies, over and over again, that the seriousness of the situation really hits home.

Our experience, working principally with the low-carbon sector (renewable energy, environmental services and associated emerging technologies), suggests that the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are the areas in which the most serious shortages are evident. Among our members, it is apparent that STEM skills are now increasingly found in an ageing workforce, typically men in their 50s and 60s, who are beginning to turn their eyes towards retirement. Where companies are aware of the issue, they look around and find that demand far outstrips supply for 30 and 40 year old STEM professionals and so they realise they must start developing those coming out of the education system, engaging with apprenticeships and attracting recent graduates into their companies. 

Company benefits – apprenticeship vs. graduate 

The recent election showed that politicians see apprenticeships as a solution they feel they can deliver for industry. There was a point in the campaigning when it seemed that the different parties were entering a bidding war over just how many apprenticeships they could promise to create over the forthcoming parliament. The successful Conservatives have promised three million apprenticeships over the next five years, an increase on the 2.5 million they claim to have created over the previous coalition-led parliament.

It sounds like an enormous number of young people being trained in useful skills but just how useful is engaging with apprenticeships to a company looking to bring in vital STEM skills – would it be better to focus on graduate recruitment?

The problem for a company in pursuing the apprenticeship route is finding apprenticeship schemes that suit the purposes of the company. The strength of these schemes are that many are well established so providers and colleges are familiar with their content and know how to deliver them. However, a weakness is often that these courses are designed by the provider who might define competencies in ways that do not meet the needs of industry.

It may also be that an established apprenticeship does not cover all the aspects that a company needs – for example, in the low-carbon sector, an electrotechnical apprenticeship framework doesn’t specifically cover solar PV, a heating and ventilation framework doesn’t cover biomass or solar thermal, while a Sustainable Resource Management framework only covers anaerobic digestion at an advanced level, but not in the standard apprenticeship. It may well be that a company finds that existing apprenticeships are limited in what they deliver.

Clearly, recruiting direct from university allows a company to secure individuals that have a much higher level of technical understanding but, again, it is important to ensure that the training they have received meets the needs of the company involved. It also may be that a recent graduate will not necessarily have had a great deal of experience in a working environment and will need to develop in areas such as project management, team working and communications skills.

While an apprenticeship is focused on a particular career in industry, a graduate will most likely only have focused on a particular area of expertise towards the end of their degree. This may mean that they will need a period of adjustment when actually fulfilling a role in the specialism, a period when they confirm to themselves that this is indeed the area of science or engineering that they wish to focus on for their career. This can be disruptive, particularly in a small team where a new recruit will be expected to contribute from the first day. Perhaps a good middle ground route is recruiting from one of the new degree apprenticeships, where the candidate will have the academic rigour of a degree course but the sector focus and work experience associated with an apprenticeship.

It should be clear from this summary that the issues aren’t simple. Forward-looking companies must engage with young people to ensure their future skills base, but the best route must be properly researched and advice from an independent expert can be invaluable.

University or apprenticeship – what to do? 

The other side of this complex situation is the position of an individual who has been inspired to pursue a career in STEM-based industries. With a wide range of options now available, how do they decide between an apprenticeship, degree apprenticeship and the more traditional route of racking up academic qualifications through college or university? 

In truth, a horses for courses approach is often most appropriate. Apprenticeships provide an excellent route for young people with a good STEM education but it is essential that they are convinced that they will be able to handle the acquisition of technical skills, generally involving mechanical and electrical elements and, possibly, some design.

Entering work via an apprenticeship does not preclude advancement to degree level at a later stage, with a good number later pursuing an undergraduate career, sometimes sponsored by their employer. There are also the new degree apprenticeships that are coming on stream that allow a young person to be employed, earn a good salary, but also experience the academic rigour of a university education.

If, however, a young person is not certain of the sector in which they wish to specialise, a university degree in a relevant course allows the ultimate employment destination to be deferred at least for the first two years of study. Many undergraduate engineers, for example, decide to take other career routes such as accountancy or consulting.

While an apprenticeship does allow for movement through to higher qualifications, and doesn’t preclude advancement to very senior positions, it has to be acknowledged that, in general, access to fast-track promotion schemes tends to be from the graduate entry route, particularly in larger companies.

Cost and income issues also need to be considered as, while it can be a life-enhancing experience, time spent at university can also be expensive and the apprenticeship alternatives will provide a route into a good career while still earning a steady income.

About Employer First

Employer First is a not for profit membership organisation that works with companies in low carbon sectors such as renewable energy and environmental technology to overcome skills problems through diagnosis, recruitment and training. At Employer First, we are signalling loudly to government that business must be listened to and engaged in the development of apprenticeships or there is a danger that the process becomes supply driven, where providers are incentivised to find the learner but there is no reconciliation with the needs and technical demands of industry.

We are particularly keen to develop apprenticeship standards – developing apprenticeships in consultation with employers, providing training in new technologies for which apprenticeships do not yet exist. We are presently working on apprenticeship standards for Anaerobic Digestion Technicians and Biomass Installation Engineers. 

For more information about Employer First, visit 

'I can safely say that choosing an apprenticeship was the right way to progress my career. I was able to earn money while learning. Doing an apprenticeship has lead me to great opportunities and enabled
me to work my way up in TWI from a junior role to a senior position.'

Matt Spinks – Team Leader in the Laser Research Department at TWI and winner of the Young UK Laser Engineering Award

'University gave me the academic and practical skills I needed to become a practicing engineer – it exposed me to the different disciplines, as well as, understand the theory behind it. My degree has opened doors in the career world. I think the job market is becoming very competitive and a degree is one point of difference to show your expertise.'

Michelle Dickinson – Chemical and Materials Engineer, MEng, PhD