An Apprentice’s View

Last week saw the celebration of National Apprenticeship Week in the UK. In the past few years the government has focused on this type of vocational training for young people as an alternative to the academic university education. However, a recent survey of the CIPD found out that there apprenticeships are seen as the poor relation to universities and almost 50% of those questioned believed that they were more suitable for manual or blue collar professions.

In other countries, such as the DACH countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland), their long-established Dual Education System is seen as a cornerstone of economic prosperity.

In Germany, around 60% of school leavers choose this route to attend vocational college, for example on day release, combined with practical experience in a company. Dependent on their previous school qualification and chosen profession, the training lasts between 2 and 4 years. There are around 350 officially recognised training occupations and last year 21.7% of companies were offering training to young people. They made a total of 584,547 apprenticeship placements available, with 551,272 contracts subsequently signed.

Other European also adapted the dual education system such as Belgium, Denmark, France and the Netherlands, but it is used even further afield for example in China and India.

Laura Nicholson - smallRTR Handelsgesellschaft is a German SME with a head office in Ratingen and subsidiary offices in the UK, the Czech Republic and Poland. The company is a supply chain provider to the power industry, specialising in steel tubes and pressure parts.

In Germany RTR has offered apprenticeships for many years to ensure its skilled workforce for the future. Here in the UK, Laura Nicholson was the company’s first apprentice. She joined their Gateshead operation in 2011, following completion of her A-Levels. Here’s what Laura thinks about her experience as an apprentice:

What were your favourite subjects at school?
English, biology and art.

What kind of career did you have in mind following your school education?
I was considering primary school teaching for a bit, then physiotherapy was another idea. I also wanted to be a vet but that didn’t last long neither. I didn’t have a big game plan.

I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do and decided to gain some experience. It personally seemed silly to spend thousands of pounds to get a degree I might not even need. I was advised by my parents to only go to university if I knew I would need a degree to achieve well in the profession e.g. doctor, teacher, lawyer.

How did you find out about the RTR apprenticeship place?
I joined an apprenticeship company – Access Training – and they found me potential apprenticeship placements. It was all about administration or recruitment. They interviewed me first before suggesting the apprenticeships they thought would suit me.

What attracted you to RTR?
I stopped doing German at GCSE level at school and it has always been a little regret as I originally wanted to continue it and I liked the fact that they wanted me to do German as well as my NVQ. RTR gave the impression of being a small and good company and two managers interviewed me for the job.

What kind of qualifications have you gained so far?
I’ve completed an NVQ Level 2 in Business Administration. I’ve been also been doing German at the University of Lifelong Learning and completed an ACT! User and Administration Course. I’m currently doing NVQ Level 3 in Business Administration and Level 3 in German and I’d like to do the exam for AS Level German. I also did a telephone course with Access Training.

What kind of practical work experience do you think you have gained since you joined RTR?
I learnt about logistics and sales and use an ERP system. I build up customer and supplier relationships. I prepare quotations, send out material enquiries and handle all the paperwork through to invoicing. I can also make a macchiato in the correct way J I’m a lot more confident than I used to be and I can honestly say I think my apprenticeship has attributed to that.

How do you gain your theoretical experience for your NVQs?
You pick your own subjects and you can link them all to the job that you do. I’ve chosen for example order, product and services because I do this every day. All the questions I get asked are easier to answer as I have experience. If I don’t know something, I can call my assessor at any time to talk about it. The NVQ is based on continuous assessment and I have regular meetings with my assessor and Access is very, very supportive.

What do you think have been the advantages and disadvantages of doing an apprenticeship?
The advantage is that you get work experience and a qualification. It’s at no cost to you and you get paid to do it. It’s easier to do the qualification as you can base it on something.

The disadvantage is that you don’t necessarily get a degree and that’s what some people look for if you apply for a job. Apart from that I can’t think of anything else.

What do your friends from your school think about your apprenticeship?
They think it’s really, really good. Some wished they’d done it rather than go to university. You don’t get into any debts. My friends at university all knew exactly what they wanted to do as a career and they needed a degree for that. They sometimes say they’re jealous of me for choosing an apprenticeship, I think this is mainly due to the fact I’m saving up for things like a new car and to move out and they know when they leave university, they’ll have debts that I won’t have and they won’t have savings like I have.

How do you think apprenticeships could be improved?
Sometimes apprenticeships seem to be a bit like slave labour and that side needs to be looked at. The minimum apprenticeship wage differs from the minimum wage, but what people need to take in to account is the advantages of an apprenticeship against being paid slightly less money. I’ve been told that I’m one of the lucky ones and other companies don’t train or let the apprentices take any time off to do NVQ their studies.

Do you meet any other apprentices?
No, not really. I only know one other person who does an accountancy apprenticeship at Procter & Gamble. And another girl who does hairdressing. Everybody else is either working in an office, in ICT, in catering, but all my best friends are doing a course at university.

Do you have any other plans after your NVQ Level 3?
I need to think about what I want to do as I don’t think there’s a Level 4 at the moment. There may be something set up by the time I finish, but I’m not sure.