Could you be the next apprentice?
Gaining a foothold on the career ladder is tough work. With businesses reluctant to recruit and ferocious competition for the limited number of jobs available, young people are under pressure to find the best routes into their chosen professions.
Between October and December 2013, more than 900,000 16 to 24-year-olds were unemployed, and 250,000 of them had been out of work for more than a year, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Until recently, degrees were essential for most white-collar professions, with job descriptions declaring only applications from graduates would be considered - even with degrees in subjects unrelated to the role.
But since the start of the financial downturn and subsequent recession, employers have become much choosier about who they employ. They want would-be employees to have a more specific set of skills.
This, coupled with university fees spiralling to £9,000 a year, is encouraging some young people to shun degrees altogether and opt for an apprenticeship instead. In fact, there were 520,600 people starting apprenticeships in the 2011/12 academic year, according to the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) - an increase of nearly 14% compared with the previous year.
And gone are the days of apprenticeships being restricted to trades. Instead, a new wave of apprenticeships is bringing young people into the world's biggest companies.
A string of blue-chip companies, including Starbucks, Virgin Media, Rolls-Royce, Deloitte, LV=, Bentley Motors, Ryman, Superdrug and Tesco all boast such schemes, along with a long list of smaller names operating in a wide range of sectors.
And apprenticeships are cropping up in fields as diverse as media, law, engineering, agriculture, education and public services, according to Richard Marsh, employer service director at the NAS.
The London Evening Standard newspaper is also championing the merits of apprenticeships. It has launched a campaign to get companies of all sizes to help unemployed youngsters in the capital into work through paid apprenticeships.
So far, it has helped 1,272 young people into apprenticeships at companies including Goldman Sachs and Ernst & Young.
How do apprenticeships work?
The schemes combine practical training with study and are aimed at those aged 16 and above who are not in full-time education. The general idea is for young people to be taken on by companies and paid a competitive wage, while receiving training at the same time.
As well as working alongside experienced staff, apprentices gain specific skills relevant to the job. They also spend time studying - usually one day a week - towards a qualification in that industry.
There are three levels of apprenticeship: intermediate, advanced and higher. They take between one and four years to complete, although this depends on an individual's ability and the industry sector.
The minimum salary is £2.68 per hour, with most apprentices earning on average £200 a week, according to the NAS. And some research by the University of Sheffield's economics department suggests people with an apprenticeship can earn, on average, £100,000 more during their career than those without one.
But can an apprenticeship be a real alternative to a degree? Ryan Bright, currently on an apprenticeship with PricewaterhouseCoopers in London, certainly thinks so. The 18-year-old, from Wolverhampton, has been taken on by the global consultancy giant and insists it's one of the best decisions he's ever made.
"The value of a degree alone is now decreasing and is not the only route to a successful career," he says. "It is so competitive coming out of university that people can find it difficult to set themselves apart from the crowd."
Ryan is pursuing a two-year higher apprenticeship in management consulting and, if he performs well, will be able to join PwC's graduate scheme - without having been to university. In fact, after finishing, the majority of apprentices (85%) will remain in employment, with 64% staying with the same employer, according for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
One step ahead
Ryan believes his apprenticeship will put him a step ahead of his peers who are studying towards a degree.
"Graduates can often find themselves in a job unrelated to their degree, or even unemployed," he says. "This apprenticeship programme has given me the opportunity to kick-start my career early."
And even though he accepts there are downsides to entering the world of work when others his age are out partying, he knows the hard work will be worthwhile.
"A part of me feels like I am missing out on the student lifestyle as I see my mates out partying every night and sleeping until noon the next day and compare it to my early alarms Monday to Friday," he says. "However, the independence of earning my own income and the responsibility I am given at work have matured me as a person and helped build up my self-confidence."
However, although many professions now offer vocational routes for prospective employees, there are still some - including medicine veterinary science and pharmacy - where there is still no viable alternative to a university education.
University also equips youngsters with other life skills, such as living away from their parents for the first time, as well as the myriad clubs and societies. While getting a job is the end goal, it's worth considering what they will be missing out on by not going to university.
In addition, there remains a question mark over the perception of apprenticeships in the wider job market, particularly as so many adverts these days are still asking for graduates. Only time will tell if on-the-job qualifications have the same gravitas in the eyes of employers. But in the meantime, apprenticeships should not be considered an easy option.
"The competition is as fierce as it is for university and you need the same kind of grades to get a place on a really prestigious course," says Marsh. "Getting an apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce is as difficult as getting a place at Oxbridge."
Choosing between an apprenticeship and university is not an easy decision. "It depends on the areas you like and their entry requirements," says Jenny Ungless, founder of City Life Coaching. "However, we have a lot more flexibility in how we study and enter the workplace compared with previous generations."
Tips for bagging an apprenticeship
Applying for an apprenticeship can seem daunting, especially for young people who may never have worked before. But the best advice for anyone in this situation is to tell a would-be employer as much as possible about what makes you an ideal apprentice. Include details of non-academic interests, such as sports, charity work or hobbies, says Jenny Ungless, founder and director of City Life Coaching.
Employers want candidates to demonstrate they've thoroughly researched the role and the company. And this knowledge will come in handy at the interview stage, as you'll be able to think up relevant questions.
To find out more, the National Apprenticeship Service's website (apprenticeships.org.uk) is full of information about apprenticeships on offer in the UK, or visit nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk.