What defines an apprentice?

What defines an apprentice?

As the founder of Class Careers, I constantly find myself engaging in conversations with recruiters, schools, agencies (and others) - formal or informal - about what I do. Since inception of the company nearly three years ago, my focus has been on connecting young people to employers. Class Careers works within the apprentice and school leaver recruitment market, and despite the recent noise surrounding apprenticeships, I find myself regularly met with the question: What is an apprentice?

Out of curiosity, I googled the definition:

I’m sure you’re as shocked as I was to see this ‘definition’.

And it doesn’t really get any better:

Dictionary.com defines apprentice as a person who works for another in order to learn a trade, eg. an apprentice to a plumber; and;

Vocabulary.com defines ‘apprenticeship’ as a kind of job training that involves following and studying a master of the trade on the job, instead of in school. The word apprenticeship comes from the Old French “aprentiz” meaning ‘someone learning’ and the Anglian suffix -scip, meaning “state, condition of being”.

It’s interesting to see these official definitions online. In reality, we know that these definitions aren’t wholly true - granted, vocabulary.com comes closest to offering a true definition - but if this is what students are seeing when googling their future career choices and asking questions like ‘what is an apprentice?’ or ‘what is an apprenticeship?’, it really doesn’t bode well for the outward appearance of apprenticeships or school leaver schemes on students.

Now, we know that the government is doing a lot to raise the profile of apprenticeships - following the Apprenticeship Levy and the new law stating that schools must promote apprenticeships as much as they do higher education or university - then someone needs to quickly inform the internet that their definition of apprentice is out of date and phrases such as - fixed period at low wages - could be off-putting for a school leaver… or worse, a potential candidate!

Many have asked what actually defines an apprentice or school leaver. It’s certainly an interesting question, and one that is important to explore because it will impact attraction strategies, the structure of apprenticeship programme and training procedures.

So what really defines an apprentice?

I think the most common association with apprenticeships is that it’s someone young. An apprenticeship is typically someone who has just left school or college, and is just starting out in their career. This traditional norm is quickly changing as many organisations, notably Barclays, are recruiting adults into apprenticeships. And more recently, Lewisham Council announced their own adult apprenticeship scheme.

Apprenticeships are no longer associated with a single gender, though I do think that traditionally, this may have been the case - especially when you take a closer look at the industries in which apprenticeships were traditionally offered - such as automotive and engineering. There has been a significant rise in female apprenticeships in the last ten years with companies such as British Gas actively breaking down the stereotypes, which is really serving to bolster the image of the industry, and apprenticeships in general amongst females.

Following on from my previous point, we know that a lot of industries - especially the ‘trades’ have always had apprentices, and this is an association that is desperately trying to be shaken off. Not that these industries won’t continue to offer apprenticeships, but following the apprenticeship levy, companies and industries who haven’t traditionally offered schemes will start to do so.

Earning and learning
The phrase that springs to mind when talking about apprenticeships is ‘earn and learn’. And for the most part, I agree. But if we are to use this term to describe an apprentice, then surely, we are all apprentices? I’m definitely still learning, and I know that many of us are…

Some would argue that it’s more than this: it’s about securing a qualification whilst learning, but again, where do we draw the line with qualifications that define an apprenticeship?

Bringing it all together
In respect of my final point, there is an argument for both, and I don’t think that there are definitive answers for the questions that I raised. However, I do agree that the phrase ‘earn and learn’ is a catchy one, and will probably be one that is always associated with apprenticeships in some way. More often than not, we will see the majority of apprenticeships filled by young people, and now, we’re seeing the gender mix slowly work its way towards a fifty-fifty split male and female.

Personally, I’m looking forward to see how the levy progresses and how businesses and future pathways and careers for school leavers develop over the next few months and years, and how that changes the definition of an apprentice. And who knows, perhaps in a few years, Google will catch up with the rest of us.

As ever, please do share your thoughts and opinions on this post via the comment box below. I’m very interested to hear thoughts from across my network, sectors and industries.