The ‘real skills’ benefit of choosing apprenticeships over higher education – as told by Suffolk and Essex apprentices

University is still the number one choice for young people wanting to go on to further education.

But to mark National Apprenticeship Week, Suffolk and Essex apprentices have explained why they chose to earn while they learn.

“Young people are being sold lie after lie,” claims Jade Ling, who boasts 11 GCSEs, a distinction for a media diploma and a brown belt in karate with several national championship wins to her name. “Sure, university is a choice. But it’s not the only one.”

At 17, Jade is one of two apprentices at Prominent, a PR firm in Felixstowe which has worked hard to grow from the bottom up by bringing in fresh talent and offering intensive mentoring and in-house training.

East Anglian Daily Times: Greene King apprentice Ben Felgate of Thrasher Picture: GRAHAM BRIGGSGreene King apprentice Ben Felgate of Thrasher Picture: GRAHAM BRIGGS (Image: graham briggs/Greene King)

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She’s joined by Chelsea Debnam, who has 10 GCSEs, three A-levels and worked a weekend job throughout college to buy her first car.

“My school pushed all students towards university,” said the 19-year-old who wants to pursue a career in graphic design. “I suffer from anxiety so going away seemed daunting and I didn’t like the idea of starting my career saddled with a huge debt.

“I had three separate meetings with careers advisors asking for help and not one mentioned apprenticeships. When I finally came across them, the idea was sneered at by my teachers.”

East Anglian Daily Times: Jordan Halliday, Siemens Picture: SARAH DEANE PHOTOGRAPHYJordan Halliday, Siemens Picture: SARAH DEANE PHOTOGRAPHY (Image: Sarah Deane Photography/ScottishPower Renewables)

Apprenticeships have long suffered from an image problem – associated with low wages, manual labour, a “fall back” to university.

To combat that, the Department for Education has launched numerous initiatives to boost take-up including the business grant Apprenticeship Levy, investing in Degree Apprenticeships to allow people to work and complete a qualification and, more recently, a huge ad campaign with M&C Saatchi called ‘Fire It Up’.

“Taking up an apprenticeship has taken me out of my comfort zone and with that has come incredible experiences, an education like no other and the support of real experts,” said Chelsea.

“There is a preconception that apprenticeships are only available in jobs where the normal route is not academic,” Jade added. “This isn’t true. I am working towards a qualification but I’m also immersing myself in the world of work. University simply cannot teach you how to be a good employee.”

Stats back this up with an average of 83 graduates competing for every graduate job.

In fact, university leavers have been described as the “lost generation” saddled with debt in a competitive labour market they find themselves overqualified and underpaid – or not in work at all.

Helen Rudd, managing director of Prominent, said: “Of course for some sectors having a university degree is a prerequisite. But university isn’t for everyone.

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“As a business owner, I can tell you that someone who has worked in a job for two years and has picked up real skills is much more employable than someone with an unrelated degree.”

Ben Felgate, who completed a Level 2 food production apprenticeship with Bury St Edmunds brewing and pubs group Greene King, is based at the Thrasher pub in Ipswich where he was taken on as an apprentice chef.

After working in other jobs, at the age of 23 he decided to seek opportunities in the pubs and restaurants sector and landed the apprenticeship.

“I have learnt so much from my apprenticeship and have truly enjoyed it,” he said. “I’ve had so much support from my kitchen manager, making it even more enjoyable to complete. I would love to progress even further within the kitchen and work my way up the ladder if an opportunity comes up, and then to do next level apprenticeship programme as I know now how much it can help develop my career.”

Not all apprentices are young. After nearly 20 years working for Colchester-based care group Care UK, Christine Bond decided to take up the challenge of a Learning Apprenticeship for Team Leaders, which takes about a year to complete.

She is a team leader in the Colchester-based hub that supports all care and support colleagues in Care UK’s 120 care homes nationwide. She says the college level course is a challenge, but one that she feels is benefiting her, her colleagues and even her family.

“It is very intense, but I am supported by my wonderful manager and my team. I have one day, every other week, where I come into work and go off to a quiet office and complete a unit of the course,” she said.

“At other times I will log-in to a live virtual classroom and join in the lessons. At the weekends and evenings I spend time studying at the table with my son. He is 16 and about to take his GCSEs. He is good at maths and I am stronger in English and so we share our skills and we have both benefited from it.”