Alexa Rendell

Why I picked an apprenticeship over a politics degree

Why I picked an apprenticeship over a politics degree
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I’d always wanted to work in the media but had no idea how to get there. I would spend hours during sixth form trawling the pages of impressive journalists on Wikipedia, desperately trying to get some sense of what was required. My conclusion? An Oxbridge education tied most of them together.

Inspired, I applied to various top universities. After getting a handful of offers, I picked a politics course at a leading institution, the University of Warwick. In the meantime, I started getting as much work experience as possible. The more I did, however, the more I realised that there were actually alternative paths into the industry. So many of the young journos I met weren’t graduates. Their route had been the government’s apprenticeship scheme.

For me, the word ‘apprenticeship’ had always conjured up images of traditionally vocational, practical careers —a hairdresser giving their first trim, or a plumber taking a student under his wing. To discover that there were apprentices in corporate lines of work was a revelation.

Once I did some research, it became clear that what I thought I knew about apprenticeships was wrong. They involved a real job, but with a bit of a twist: you go to work every day, are paid a salary and get real workplace experience. The difference? As part of your job, you spend time studying for a formal qualification related to your career. These qualifications range from Level 3 (equivalent to an A-Level) to Level 7 (equivalent to a master’s degree).

Of course, apprenticeships won’t work for all professions — having medical students solely learning on the job, for instance, would quite literally be a bloody disaster. But almost every industry now has apprenticeship opportunities, even traditionally high-paying sectors such as engineering, finance and law. With companies such as M&S having more than 100 applications per place for their schemes, the appetite is growing, and for good reason. Regardless of the qualification level or industry, the premise remains the same: you get paid to learn.

This was an appealing proposition. I applied to ten schemes and eventually got an offer to become a production apprentice at a sports production company in London. Would this be a better option than university? It was a dilemma. It’s an accepted narrative that university is where you have ‘the best years of your life’; where you meet lifelong friends, make memories and study something you’re passionate about. What’s more, employers like to see you have a degree, and it’s considered to be something you can ‘fall back on’ during your career.

All of the above may well be true — but it’s also true that it’s far from rosy at UK universities right now. Covid aside, students are facing issues with housing, mental health and loneliness. And perhaps most strikingly, they are on average now graduating with around £50,000 of debt.

That raises another question: what’s the value of a degree? Yes, there’s the aforementioned life experience and education, but is that worth £50,000? I wasn’t sure. I liked politics, but I didn’t necessarily want to study it full-time for three years. The things I was most interested in barely even featured in the syllabus. I liked the idea of a ‘university lifestyle’. I just wasn’t sure if I liked it enough to pay that much for it.

With an apprenticeship, on the other hand, I could see the appeal of making contacts and learning first-hand about a notoriously competitive industry. I could gain a specialised education while developing skills that would stand me in good stead for the rest of my career. I would also get to meet people who shared my interests - colleagues who could become friends. Best of all, I’d be doing a job I loved.

The financial freedom an apprenticeship can offer is also something not to be sniffed at. Granted, starting salaries are lower than for a lot of graduate schemes, ranging from £14,000 to £24,000. But factor in the debt those graduates might have and the sums stack up in your favour.

For me, in the end, the deciding factor was that the apprenticeship only took a year. Education is a lifelong thing, and if after a year (or two, or three) I decided I wanted to go to university then it would always be there. The opportunity to get started on a career straight away was too enticing. I took the plunge with the apprenticeship, and haven’t regretted it for a second.

It’s a big jump from sixth form to the workplace. You can’t go out clubbing on a Wednesday night and have a lie-in the following morning. Your work no longer just affects your grades — it has financial, real-world implications.

I’m not writing this to try to tell every sixth former they should be doing an apprenticeship. Far from it. In the same way we understand that traditional learning doesn’t suit everyone, an apprenticeship would not be the best fit for everyone either. What I hope, though, is that in the years to come, every student has the chance to explore their options properly, and to be able to make an informed decision on what actually works best for them.