University vs apprenticeship: Are apprenticeships still considered masculine?

Previously when you thought of apprenticeship schemes the first picture that sprung to mind was a young boy in a hard hat, on a building site, learning about carpentry or plumbing.

University vs apprenticeship- Are apprenticeships still considered masculine?
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However due to several efforts made by both government and industry the view that apprenticeships are masculine, and just for the boys, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

With university fees set to increase in 2017 and research from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showing that one in four graduates are still without a job six months after graduation, is university really the best option for students nowadays?

This week hundreds of thousands of teenagers in the UK received their exam results in A-Level and AS. Despite rising tuition fees the administrations body UCAS revealed a record 424,000 university places have been offered, which is an increase of 3% on last year.

This year the government has raised the profile of apprenticeships by upping the minimum wage for apprentices to match the national minimum wage, meaning that apprentices can now earn up to 270% more than university graduates.

So what is the best option – university or an apprenticeship? And are apprenticeships still only considered something for the boys? We asked a selection of industry experts.

Fleur Sexton, joint managing director of Coventry-based training provider PET-Xi, said she has a heart-felt belief in the value of apprenticeships and believes they are vital in helping employers develop and raise standards: “While many people are more suited for university and academia, there are thousands of others who prefer to apply their talents in a more practical way and to ‘earn while they learn’ rather than accrue a debt of university tuition fees.

“By going to university people are learning theoretically and then applying their knowledge later on in life. However all people are different and some prefer to apply their skills straight away. It’s a really exciting time for apprenticeships and the government has invested heavily in them.”

Sexton said that apprenticeships may have previously been viewed as an option for men, but that this is changing: “Perhaps in the past apprenticeships were seen as quite masculine and more pertinent to industries such as construction, but that’s all changed. Apprenticeships are now available in a range of different topics from project management to marketing, care, leadership and hairdressing.

“For example at PET-Xi around half of our apprentices are females – and of all ages.
Tilly Ward, could have gone to university, but chose to take a level 2 teaching assistant apprenticeship because she wanted to learn on the job and find out immediately if she would be good at it, rather than learn the theory in a classroom.

Not just for the boys anymore

Sam Courtney took her level 3 apprenticeship in management with PET-Xi at the age of 47, having returned to work after her family were all grown up. Sexton added: “Apprenticeships offer everyone an opportunity to succeed, you don’t necessarily have to follow a path as before – there’s so much opportunity out there. My advice to those who are thinking of changing their plans based on their A level results is not to panic and understand that whatever happens there are always options out there.

“Employers love experience and more companies are now taking on apprentices and trainees. More people are going down the apprenticeship route, they can open so many doors and there’s nothing you can’t achieve.”

Manufacturer of high-integrity o-rings and seals, Superior employs 191 people with 19 apprentices currently going through its own apprenticeship academy.

The Superior Academy offers apprenticeships to students from as young as 16, through to graduates, giving apprentices the chance to learn about engineering and manufacturing.

Katie Bodman, Head of Training Academy, at Superior, agreed that apprenticeships have previously been viewed as masculine: “In the manufacturing sector, science and engineering subjects often have a stigma attached to them suggesting they are ‘messy and just for boys’.

“We try to counter this image by hosting on-site activities for schools with the aim of getting more females interested in STEM subjects. We provide tours of our factories and create challenges in our engineering workshop and academy so they can see that it’s not just oil and grime.”

Claire Lister, Managing Director of Pitman Training Group, who herself worked her way up the business from FD to MD, said: “Attracting female students into a business should be no different to attracting male students in theory -but employers need to note how the two sexes think differently about careers.”

She drew attention to recent research Pitman Training Group undertook with Censuswide, which looked at career aspirations. The research revealed that women are less confident in their own convictions and found that nationally young people as a whole were not connecting their careers to their passions (84% of 16-24 years olds across the UK and Ireland).

When asked ‘Why do you think you are not able to pursue your passions in your career?” women scored much higher in answering “We wouldn’t know where to start” (48% vs Male 31%) and “I don’t have the confidence” (40% vs 23%) as well as on fear of failure (30% vs 19% male). However when it came to “With the right guidance I could achieve my career dreams” women scored highest (53% vs 49% male).

Lister said: “It’s important for employers to stress their commitment to training and support, to career progression and clear development paths, as this then talks the right language for women looking for that type of support. This is important when recruiting but even more important when it comes to retention of good staff.”

Suzie Webb, Director of Education and Development at the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), said research by AAT shows that many young females – and young people in general – are not being given balanced information.

“Nearly half (44%) of female students who received their A-Level exam results this week said they received little or no information about higher-level vocational routes. And over two thirds (67%) of those students said the careers advice they received was skewed towards university education. As a result, there is a misconception about the professions it can lead to.”

AAT’s survey also found that a third (32%) of females between the ages of 16 and 24 incorrectly believe that higher-level technical education is only suitable for ‘blue collar’ careers.

Webb added: “The truth is that a non-university route can lead to a wide range of professional careers – from marketing and sales, through to IT, accountancy, engineering and even healthcare. Around two thirds of students taking the AAT’s vocational courses in accountancy are women. Technically -trained employees are in demand, and this is likely to increase as employers increasingly recognise the benefits.

“If you feel like you are lacking some of the facts about higher level technical education and what it could offer you, it’s well worth visiting the government’s website GetInGoFar for unbiased information about the different career routes that exist. It’s also a good idea to speak with people who have taken different career routes so you can understand first-hand what it’s like. Ask questions and do your research so you can make a fully informed decision.”

Learning and earning

Samantha Duggan is now a Marketing Assistant at Watches2u, having decided to not go to university and take a Marketing apprenticeship role instead.

She said: “After I finished college I decided I didn’t want to go into further education, as I felt I learnt a great deal at college. However, as an apprentice I am learning as I am earning. I believe this is the best way forward for me and I don’t have any regrets. I am thoroughly enjoying my current job role as a Marketing apprentice at Watches2U and am now looking forward to seeing where it takes me in the future.

“The main reason I didn’t want to go to university wasn’t because of the expense. I knew I wanted a career in marketing and I knew I didn’t have to go to university to pursue my career. Hands on experience in this sector would be great for me and keep me up to date with the latest practices. My words of wisdom for everyone reading this today are, think carefully about your decision and the career path you would like to take. Think about all the options that are available to you and select the best one for you.”

Zoe Minns, Customer Service Apprentice at Gifts International, said: “I would recommend an apprenticeship to others in a heartbeat. Not only are you earning while you’re learning but it certainly beats a classroom environment. It also gives you the opportunity to become more financially independent giving you the ability to save for holidays or days out.

“One of the main reasons I would recommend an apprenticeship is that it truly builds your confidence and gives real life working and learning experiences, something you wouldn’t receive if going down a different route such as university.”

Alex Webb, Course Director at Flying Start XP, said: “Attending university provides the gateway to additional learning and a unique and exciting experience that will see you through from throwing up at Freshers to throwing your cap at graduation. It is a place where you can demonstrate your academic potential and secure a degree that you can take with you throughout your career.

“On the other hand, taking up an apprenticeship will offer ‘on the job’ training for those who prefer the more practical side of learning. Apprenticeships mean you can immerse yourself in the industry and enter the world of work straight away, whilst avoiding the piling debt that comes hand in hand with any university course. Whichever route you take, the key elements for building a successful career is knowing the business skills that employees are looking for. Help yourself stand out from the crowd by honing these skills.”

Webb added: “As long as women take the opportunities to make the best of the skills and knowledge they have then there are certainly less barriers in their way than when Baby Boomers started out, it’s just about having the confidence and self-awareness to go after them. Women are no longer told that they should just be PAs or stay at home mothers.

“They have great role models in business, politics, sport and media. Look at Rio Olympics where majority of the key broadcasters are female! My feeling is that it’s more about self-confidence than anything else. Put yourself in to the right conversations and don’t be afraid to go after exactly what you want.”

Project Manager for the Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership (THEBP), said: “At present, young people are in an incredibly difficult position when it comes to choosing whether to go to university, or to undertake an apprenticeship.

“Whilst many students are concerned about the rapidly rising costs of studying for a degree, securing an apprenticeship can be even harder than gaining entry to university. We will continue to see young people struggle with their post-18 destination choices until the apprenticeship provision improves across the UK.”

Aliya Vigor-Robertson, Co-Founder of JourneyHR, said it is important for students to consider all their options, including apprenticeships: “Whilst university has always been a favourable option, young professionals now need more than a degree to compete in the jobs market; with companies expecting candidates to already have experience in the industry of their choice.

“Within the creative industry, the trend for apprenticeships is growing, with media, advertising and PR agencies being just some examples of where apprenticeships are being embraced with great success. More businesses are recognising the benefits of having someone learn their trade on the job, rather than spend three to four years learning theory in a lecture theatre.”

Annemarie Petsis Jones, Head of HR, at Opus Energy, said the firm has been running an apprenticeship scheme since 2012 and has had a lot of success both in terms of the talent secured and the new energy it has brought into the business: “Our apprentices are embedded in the business as soon as they start, and they make up a core part of our wider team. We encourage as much team engagement and skills sharing as possible, opening up various opportunities to our new starters. Our apprentices get involved in lots of different elements across the business; in order to ensure they have high levels of engagement both across different teams and with the business as a whole. This really helps keep the staff turnover rate of apprentices very low, at 7-8%, which makes it a great way to retain top talent.”

“Apprenticeships require hard work and determination on both sides, which is something important that we have learnt over the past few years. Businesses should not see apprentices as cheap labour – instead, think about how you can fully support these young people in order to achieve success. Ultimately, the more a business invests, the more likely it is to reap the rewards.”

Higher achiever opting for apprenticeships

David Allison former teacher and Founder of, believes that even high achieving A-level students are choosing alternative routes into careers that were unavailable a few years ago.

He said: “More needs to be done in schools and colleges to ensure that every young person is fully aware of all the excellent options available to them after GCSEs, including apprenticeships — which provide opportunities in numerous sectors that are either not accessible through academic courses or will provide a much more effective career path.

“It is important now than ever to raise awareness of alternative career routes, with the change to AS levels coming into effect in the next academic year, as young people won’t necessarily have that early indication that they should be exploring a wider range of options. With new industry apprenticeships and higher degree apprenticeships becoming available all the time, there has never been more choice and opportunity for young people.”

Sharon Walpole, Director of, said: “Whilst we certainly don’t discourage students from going to university, we feel it’s important that they’re aware that there are plenty more options available to them; and going to university isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to building a successful career.

“Many young Britons are worried about the rising costs in tuition fees and the cost of living if they were to go away for university, but if they were to look at apprenticeship options they could be earning a wage whilst they’re learning – this is not just ideal for those who are worried about finances, but also a great alternative for those who just don’t feel that full-time academic education is for them.”

Jenny Patrickson is Managing Director at Active IQ, said: “University degrees are an important and valuable part of a young person’s education but they are not for everyone. Firstly, an academic-based education may not suit all individuals and, secondly, not everyone has an appetite for the potential debt that can accumulate during three years at university.

“Apprenticeships are an excellent choice for people who learn more by ‘doing’ as they will undertake training while working.”

She explained that a typical apprenticeship can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months, so apprentices can expect to be progressing in the workplace in half the time it takes to complete a university degree.

She added: “In the active leisure sector, Apprenticeships are available in fitness instructing, personal training, activity leadership, leisure operations, leisure management and supporting physical education and school sport. These Apprenticeships are made up of vocational qualifications at either Level 2 or Level 3, so people gain ‘market-ready’ industry qualifications too.

“I took a wide range of vocational qualifications to upskill myself in all areas of health-related fitness and physical activity to progress my career. I started out as a dancer in the 80s and now have a really wonderful job as managing director of Active IQ. I would recommend vocational training to young women looking at this industry: the scope and experience it gives you brings many options and opportunities for really satisfying work.”

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