The Apprentice vs a real apprenticeship

Apprentices learning career lessons
If the BBC show can be viewed as one long job interview, we asked, ‘Does being ON The Apprentice have anything in common with being AN apprentice?’

Assessment days are designed to help employers understand what you would be like to work with, and usually involve a series of tasks and aptitude tests. Group tasks are designed to highlight which candidates possess the skills, competencies (key qualities the employer is seeking) and personality traits necessary to do the apprenticeship or job they’re competing for – hence they are usually given tasks similar to the kinds of things an employer does in real life. We thought it would be fun to compare Lord Sugar’s ‘apprenticeship’ with a typical apprenticeship. At the end of The Apprentice’s 12-week recruitment process – in which 16 candidates are put through a series of group tasks, observed by ‘recruiters’ Claude Littner and Karen Brady – the winner walks away not with a job or apprenticeship but instead the mentorship of a multimillionaire businessman and a £250,000 investment in their own business. But are there any other key differences between the two? Here's what TARGETcareers came up with…

1. On The Apprentice, your employer won’t allow you the use of any technology. IRL, your employer will want you to be comfortable using technology.

On The Apprentice, contestants are allowed to use their phones for one purpose only: to speak with each other (and always with the speakerphone on!), not to access the internet or any other technology. This is particularly painful for the contestants during the scavenger hunt episode, where being able to find out with a quick search when WW2 started and ended (yes, really!) could have been very beneficial to Team Empower, and Google Maps could have helped Team Unison figure out where the river was in Cambridge. IRL however, although employers will not expect you to understand complicated systems or programmes, you will be expected to know your way around a computer and appreciate the opportunities offered by technology.

2. On The Apprentice, every task is a rush job. IRL, you’ll have deadlines, but sweating to meet them is not expected.

On The Apprentice the contestants always seem to be racing against the clock to finish a task and then running (literally) back to the boardroom for the assigned time, but being an apprentice shouldn’t be like this. You will be given deadlines – and no doubt during the application process employers will have been looking to see that you can finish tasks in a timely, organised fashion – but they won’t be unrealistic.

3. On The Apprentice, you don’t need common sense. IRL, common sense will take you far.

Ever watched an episode of The Apprentice and been amazed at the sheer lack of, well, sense of some of the contestants? When Team Unison was tasked with creating a new children’s toy aimed at six-to eight-year olds but instead made something more suitable for toddlers (with an awkward dancing-in-onesies video to accompany it), their lack of common sense was entertainingly shocking. Chances are, if you’ve bagged an apprenticeship it’s in part because employers have seen you demonstrate common sense during the application process. It’s okay not to know everything, but they’ll want to see that you can approach a problem rationally and come up with a solution demonstrating some degree of nous.

4. On The Apprentice, it's all fight, fight, fight! IRL, good interpersonal skills are key.

In TV world, audiences enjoy seeing ‘colleagues’ ripping each other to shreds (verbally!) on the screen – it’s considered high entertainment value by TV bosses. But in real life, you’ll be expected to demonstrate excellent communication and interpersonal skills while on your apprenticeship – and during the application process. Boardroom antics – such as putting down your colleagues and interrupting them – will not be appreciated. It’s okay to disagree with other people, of course, but you need to do it diplomatically and respectfully.

5. On The Apprentice, over-confidence is a pre-requisite. IRL, confidence, not arrogance, is the personality trait to display.

It may be okay to announce on The Apprentice, ‘If you cut me, I bleed ambition,’ (good to know, Jemelin) or to proclaim, ‘I can get anyone to do anything’ (thanks, Dean) but on a real apprenticeship you’d run the risk of alienating your colleagues if you acted like that… if you’d even managed to get hired in the first place, that is. Employers love confidence, and at an interview you need to promote your personal brand (what make you unique and, well, you) actively, but within reason – not with Apprentice-style arrogance.

6. On The Apprentice, everyone’s an entrepreneur. IRL, innovation is encouraged.

Apprenticeship recruiters often look for entrepreneurial flair in their candidates – the ability to spot an opportunity and make the most of it – but they won’t expect you to have founded your own sports management company at the age of 15, as Dean did, or be running a company in your late teens, as many Apprentice contestants seem to have done. During the recruitment process make sure you highlight and speak about times when you’ve introduced an improvement or made an impact, such as suggesting the promotion of an event at school through a particular social media channel– this is what recruiters mean when they talk about innovation.

7. On The Apprentice, variety is the name of the game. IRL, you can expect a healthy but not overwhelming amount of variety during your apprenticeship.

You don’t want or expect your apprenticeship to be boring, but you’d probably go crazy if it had the variety seen on The Apprentice: running a safari, designing a toy, creating a rollercoaster, procuring goods at the cheapest price and hosting a corporate event on a moving train the next, to name a few tasks! Instead, your employer will give you tasks and involve you in projects that will help you improve your understanding of the business sector you’re working in and give you a chance to develop an expertise in particular areas. If you’re on a rotational apprenticeship you will get to experience several different aspects of a business.

8. On The Apprentice, you start off working in teams based on your gender. IRL, that’s (probably) illegal.

In the first few weeks of every series Lord Sugar divides his candidates into competing teams according to their gender, apparently ‘to help viewers engage with the show’ (in other words, this makes for good TV). IRL firms taking on apprentices are keen to make sure their workforces are as diverse and inclusive as possible, so it would be highly unlikely that you’d ever find yourself working on a team selected solely because of gender. Teamwork in general will be a very important part of being an apprentice, however. It’s a key skill for apprentices: recruiters will be looking to see evidence that you can work well with others. You’ll need to be able to collaborate with other people to achieve results.

9. On The Apprentice there’s (almost) always only one winner because everyone else gets fired. IRL, you’ll usually be hired with other apprentices, unless you’re applying to a very small employer, and being fired is extremely rare.

Even The Apprentice occasionally breaks its own rules. In 2017, Alan Sugar took the unusual step of choosing two winners – the only time in the show’s UK 15-year history that this has happened. IRL, however, many large companies run big apprenticeship schemes, hiring multiple apprentices each year – you’re probably not going to be competing against everyone else for just one role. This also means that if you get an apprenticeship, you won’t miss out on the experience of making a group of new friends, as your peers at uni are likely doing. ‘There were around 80 people who started as apprentices at the same time as me, so I got to meet a lot of people around my age who were interested in the same things I was,’ says Shannon Lynch, a degree apprentice at Jaguar Land Rover. And if you make a mistake or find you need some extra help with a task during your apprenticeship? It’s highly, highly unlikely that you’ll find yourself in a boardroom surrounded by your peers with your boss pointing at you and shouting, ‘You’re fired!’ Employers recognise that an apprenticeship is a learning experience and won’t expect you to know everything when you start.

10. Finally, here’s something that being on The Apprentice and doing an apprenticeship have in common: both will look great on your CV!

Both being on The Apprentice and being an apprentice will be great experiences for you, build your employability skills and look good on your CV. IRL, past winners – and in fact most participants on The Apprentice – tend to go on to have successful careers, and credit being on the show with giving them extra skills and confidence… as well as some free marketing of their personal brands, of course! In the non-TV world, it’s very common for apprentices to be offered a full- time job with their employer at the end of their apprenticeship, sometimes in a role that is at the same level as a graduate job. An apprenticeship can also lead to nationally recognised qualifications and sometimes a degree as well.


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