With the economy in recession and university fees trebling to £9,000 a year, the number of young people joining apprenticeship schemes is growing rapidly.
After an unfashionable spell in the wilderness, the earn-while-you-learn route is very much back in vogue.
Government figures show the number of apprentices has doubled in the south east in the last five years to 50,000.
No longer is it viewed as an option for pupils who couldn’t get into college or university.
Instead, employers are keen to invest in bright youngsters to turn them into skilled tradesmen and women who enter the workplace with the kind of experience that no amount of studying can buy.
Defence giant BAE Systems prides itself on its three-year training scheme.
Three years ago, the shipbuilder invested £500,000 in a new, bespoke facility in the heart of Portsmouth Naval Base.
It’s there where 125 apprentices are learning their trade just yards away from where sections of the Royal Navy’s new supercarriers are being built and where BAE repairs and maintains the bulk of the surface fleet.
‘There’s many plus factors to having it in-house,’ says Wendy Fry, BAE’s apprentice and adult training manager.
‘Our apprentices are learning in a similar environment close to the real projects, so we can teach them things and then they can go and see it for real.
‘It makes all the difference.’
Harrison Finch, 16, of Anchorage Park, is just two weeks into the first year of the course.
After completing his GCSEs at Admiral Lord Nelson school in June, he felt A-levels were not worth his while.
‘All my friends have gone to college and they’ve chosen that route because they didn’t know what they wanted to do,’ he says.
‘I was looking at college but I felt I was going against what I wanted to do.
‘I’ve always enjoyed practical stuff and I wouldn’t want to be in a job that I didn’t enjoy.
‘It’s fantastic to have something like this on my doorstep, and I’m proud to wear the BAE uniform because it’s such a big name.’
Competition is fierce to become a BAE apprentice in Portsmouth. The company receives more than 600 applications every year from across the country for an intake of just 30 places.
Harrison gives a clue to the rising popularity of apprenticeships when he says: ‘Degrees are almost too common now. Everyone seems to have a degree but they don’t have the experience to get a job at the end of it.’
He adds: ‘I don’t think schools push people into apprenticeships. My school said “oh, why don’t you go to college instead.”’
Colleague Adam Castley, 18, of Liphook, nods in agreement and says: ‘There’s not many schools that understand apprenticeships. It’s all about going to college and university.’
This looks set to change with the government pouring more cash into apprenticeship schemes in an attempt to slash the number of unemployed youngsters from its current record high of 1.02m people.
In Portsmouth alone, the number of people aged 18 to 24 out of work has more than doubled in the past decade from 580 in November 2002 to 1,280 now.
Business secretary Vince Cable has said apprenticeships are key to rescuing Britain’s flagging economy and the coalition has pumped £1bn into the schemes in the last year.
He said: ‘To build a prosperous economy we need a skilled workforce.’
It’s likely that this drive, coupled with the examples being set at big firms like BAE, will prompt a sea change in the career advice being given to school leavers.
LORELLE IS LOVING IT
Lorelle Wright has a degree in 3D design from the University of Portsmouth.
But now the 22-year-old, who lives in Southsea, is a BAE Systems apprentice.
‘I enjoyed the uni course but I found it didn’t have enough practical work,’ she says. ‘I’ve always been interested in making stuff and this is better for me.
‘I started looking at this as an option before the end of my uni course because I knew I didn’t want to do a masters.
‘When I was at school and college it was more about going to uni, but apprenticeships are coming in more now.’
Only nine per cent of BAE’s apprentices are women, but Lorelle said working in a male-dominated industry doesn’t faze her. ‘It’s more accepted now,’ she says.
‘Now girls can do as much as the guys can. The reaction of my friends when I tell them about what I’m doing is “wow, that’s different”. Some of my mates have asked me about how to get in to it.’
HAYDN STARTED IN ROYAL NAVY
Haydn Purnell has taken a different route to his fellow BAE apprentices.
The 22-year-old from Southampton spent four years serving in the Royal Navy before deciding on a career change.
He says: ‘I joined the navy when I was 18.
‘I really liked the armed forces and I wanted to see what it was like.
‘ I went in to catering and firefighting but it was not hands-on enough for me.
‘This apprenticeship gives
me that opportunity and this is such a reputable company it gives
me the ability to progress my career.’
Haydn, who wants to be a mechanical engineer, recommends the apprenticeship route into
He says: ‘A lot of my friends that have gone to university have come out and they are stuck for what to do.
‘The BAE scheme is so good because they give you a lot more experience.
‘This is definitely the best opportunity.’
FROM OFFICE JOB TO APPRENTICE
Kat Price has an undergraduate and a master’s degree. But at the age of 27, she left an office job to become an apprentice.
Now in her second year, the 28-year-old, who lives in Fareham, eventually aims to become an quality control tester for BAE’s electrical work.
She says: ‘After three years of working in an office, I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life. I wanted the hands-on and practical side of things and I decided the best way to do that was to get an apprenticeship.
‘I don’t regret what I’ve done before this, but I do think if I had done this straight away I would be a lot further along in my career right now.
‘But things like apprenticeships were not pushed very much when I went to school, so I left without knowing what I wanted to do.’
A-LEVELS WEREN’T FOR CONAL
Conal Tatt, 19, studied A-levels at college for a year before he realised it wasn’t for him.
He says: ‘I wanted to be a physiotherapist. At school, I was never pushed towards apprenticeships – it was like if you couldn’t get in to college you did an apprenticeship. It was looked down on a bit.
‘But I had two friends who came here and when we were out they wouldn’t stop talking about it.
‘They would say “work was really good today, we went out on board a new ship” and there was me thinking “I’ve sat in a boring classroom all day”. So I wanted to be a part of that.’