Image: FlickrWorkplace apprenticeships have long fought against the perception that they represent a poor relation to academic qualifications when it comes to finding a route into a long-term career. However, more and more employers in the digital and technology sectors are recognising the value of apprenticeship schemes in sourcing the right candidates for hard-to-fill job roles.


A recent UK survey found that 75% of businesses saw the benefit of taking on paid apprentices, while 61% believed that apprenticeships offered better access to talent than traditional hiring practices. However, in spite of these findings, fewer than half of UK businesses have actually implemented formal apprenticeship programs. Similarly, many students and young people are unaware of the opportunities an apprenticeship can provide.


Common misconceptions around apprenticeships include the idea that they reflect academic failure and that they're only suitable for pursuing manual and trade jobs. Many job seekers also struggle to distinguish apprenticeships from internships - which are typically unpaid positions only available to candidates with the resources to work for long stretches of time with no salary and often no guarantee of a job at the end of it. By comparison, in the UK apprentices aged 16-18 are entitled to a minimum wage of £3.40 per hour, usually rising as you progress. The average hourly wage for apprentices in England in 2014 was £6.31 for level 2 and 3 apprentices, and £9.68 per hour for level 4 and 5 higher apprentices.


Also, while apprenticeships can open doors for candidates who don't achieve the required grades for their preferred higher education course, they are increasingly competitive in their own right. High quality exam scores in core subjects such as Maths, English and the Sciences are now common requirements for many apprenticeships, while popular schemes run by companies such as Rolls Royce and British Airways are in such high demand that they have been described by some as tougher to get into than the UK's top universities.


Pursuing a workplace apprenticeship doesn't necessarily mean losing out on higher education either. Many apprenticeships culminate in a qualification equivalent to an academic degree, while in fields such as engineering, apprenticeships can often build towards pursuing a part-time University degree. Promoting these so-called 'academic apprenticeships', could be an important way of dispelling the misconceptions and encouraging more high-achieving students to seriously consider apprenticeship as a viable option for further study. "Young people... think their potential is going to be limited if they do an apprenticeship rather than go to University, which in most cases is wrong" explained Teresa Frith, senior skills policy manager at the Association of Colleges (A.O.C.) in an interview with the Guardian. "If you have the ability to follow the higher education route, you can make just as good progress in your career with an apprenticeship."


TeenTech is an award-winning UK initiative that works with a variety of companies and organisations to encourage young people to pursue career opportunities in Science, Engineering and Technology. At their recent TeenTech City event in London, there was a strong focus on introducing students aged 15 to 18 to the different routes to tech careers and apprenticeships, with advice sessions from industry professionals and current apprentices. There was also advice on how to find a suitable apprenticeship and tips to improve your chances of being accepted onto it.


Ben Mustill-Rose, a developer in test for the BBC, stressed the importance of so-called 'soft skills' and extracurricular activities to build experience and make an application stand out. "From a tech point of view, it's all about contributing to things" he explained. "It shows that you genuinely care about what you're doing... it's not just about what you do in the classroom."


Education about the value of apprenticeships also needs to be passed on to parents, many of whom remain uncomfortable with encouraging their children to pursue this route over University study, which is still perceived as more secure and aspirational despite evidence to the contrary. Becci Newton, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, spoke to The Guardian about the benefits that parents and young people need to be more aware of. "You're not racking up debt and you're getting paid" she explained. "By the end of the apprenticeship you've got qualifications, work experiences and you're in the labour market. You're in a really strong position."


Did you undertake an apprenticeship as part of your career development? Can they really offer equivalent benefits to a University degree? Share your thoughts in the comments section below...