How difficult is an apprenticeship?

Person leaping between cliffs - how difficult is an apprenticeship?
Are apprenticeships hard? Is it difficult working and studying at the same time? Ten apprentices give their views.

If you take an apprenticeship you’ll have to get to grips with a new job and study for relevant qualifications at the same time. This might sound like a challenge, so we spoke to ten apprentices about what their jobs are like and how they manage to combine work and study.

What challenges has your apprenticeship thrown at you?

Finding your feet

For many apprentices, starting a job they’re not familiar with is one of the biggest challenges. However, your employer will know you’re new and all the training and on-the-job support you receive will help you find your feet. James Anderton, a degree apprentice and assistant cost manager at Turner and Townsend, comments: ‘The start of my apprenticeship was hard as I knew nothing about quantity surveying but, as time has gone on, receiving positive feedback on the work that I’ve done is great. I love seeing myself progress and improve.’ Ruth Watson, a civil engineering higher apprentice at Mott MacDonald, says: ‘I came into the industry with no knowledge of civil engineering, but I’ve learned so much in a year. Completing my first calculation was an important achievement for me. It took me a week to complete it, but now I feel comfortable doing calculations.’

If your apprenticeship involves getting experience in more than one team or job role, you might find that your ‘Help, I don’t know what I’m doing!’ moment comes part way through your apprenticeship rather than right at the start. Tom Coleman, an equity investment specialist at Fidelity International, says: ‘After around a year, I moved to a different team and this was the biggest challenge I’ve encountered over the course of my apprenticeship so far. Straight away, I felt that there was a huge gap in the level of my knowledge compared to my new team. This was tough at first, but I realised that it was up to me to ask the right questions and get up to speed.’

The demands of the job

Once you’ve got your head around your role, different apprenticeships will bring different challenges. If your job involves helping to keep projects on track, you’ll need to develop your organisational skills and stay calm about deadlines and budget constraints. Tilly Casey, a production (site) management trainee at construction company Wates, explains: ‘We work against a programme, which is a huge timetable of work that needs to be completed. I attend progress meetings and every Friday I work out what work has and hasn’t been completed and how we can progress the work to the stage we need it at. It can be stressful on site but it’s also fun and everyone is really nice and caring.’

If your apprenticeship involves physical work, it may be the working environment that you need to adapt to. Jack Hammick, an apprentice bricklayer at Barratt London, reveals: ‘The biggest challenge of my job is probably the winter. Working on the 26th storey of scaffolding in the cold took a bit of getting used to! However, I love that my job is hands-on and bricklayers work in ‘gangs’, so there’s a lot more camaraderie than in some other trades.’

How do you combine work and study – and still have a life?

Your apprenticeship will combine time at work with time at college or university; you may need to do some studying in the evenings or at weekends too. How your attendance at college or university is scheduled differs from employer to employer. For example:

  • James Anderton goes to Nottingham Trent University once a week to study for a degree in quantity surveying and construction commercial management.
  • Ruth Watson goes to college one day a week from 9.00 am to 7.30 pm for three three-hour lessons.
  • Pete Black is a solicitor apprentice at Womble Bond Dickinson in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and is studying for a law degree. He spends Wednesdays studying from textbooks and an online portal and once a month travels from the north east to City, University of London for tutorials.
  • Amy Husband, an aerospace engineer degree apprentice at Dstl, went to college Monday to Friday in the first year of her apprenticeship and worked over the holidays. She now spends three days a week at work and two days a week studying: she has lectures at the University of the West of England (UWE) on Thursday morning, does independent study on Thursday afternoon and spends Friday in college.

Tactics for keeping study commitments manageable

Apprentices have different tactics for keeping on track with study commitments while working and still having a life. James Anderton says: ‘I need to study in my spare time, especially close to deadlines. If I stay on top of it, it’s only an hour or two at the weekend. It’s important to ‘work smart’ so I can limit how much work I do at home. For example, I have a long commute to work, so I create flip cards that I use to revise on the train. This gives me more free time to have a social life and play hockey.’ Ruth Watson comments: ‘We’re taught the content in the first half of each class and spend the second half working on assignments. I try to get all my assignments done at college so I’m free to go to the pub of an evening and do what I want at the weekend.’

However, sometimes there’s no avoiding putting in extra hours. Brett Whitehead, a mechanical engineer at AECOM, advises: ‘Dedicate time to your studies. I used to allocate a day at the weekend. During exam time, my employer gave me a day’s study leave per exam and I booked some more time off as I wanted to get the top grades. You do have to put your personal life on hold during exam periods but it’s no different to A levels or university.’

Putting the hours in

Pete Black explains: ‘I have assessments every couple of months and three larger exams in June, one for each module I’ve studied that year. It’s hard to concentrate on revision when you’re at work, though I was given the week before exams off as study leave. However, looking back on how well those exams went, I feel less pressure this year – I know I can do it. I’d be lying if I said studying alongside working wasn’t a difficult challenge. Ultimately, I’m doing the same work a full-time student might do.’ Does it stop him from enjoying other aspects of life? ‘There are times when you have to rearrange your personal life to study,’ he says. ‘But, you adapt and get used to it. I’m able to fit in everything that’s most important to me. I make time to socialise and on a Friday evening, you can often find me in the pub with colleagues or friends from home. I even manage to pull off the odd night shift with the police as a special constable.’

Support from your employer – and coursemates

While you need to take responsibility for juggling work and study, it’s also worth speaking to your employer if you need a bit of extra help. Amy Husband says: ‘Having worked a full-time job previously, I was used to working for a full week but the transition from only working in holidays to doing a degree and working at the same time was still tough. My apprenticeship is only one year longer than a full-time degree, so there’s a lot to get through. The biggest thing I’ve learned so far is the importance of time management and being able to split my focus evenly. My manager is supportive, so if I do feel like I’m struggling I can potentially have an extra day of study where I catch up.’

Coursemates can also be a good source of support. Ashleigh Hickman is a quality engineer on the IT degree apprenticeship programme at Lloyds Banking Group and everyone on her degree course is a degree apprentice. She reflects: ‘It’s nice that I can socialise with them and meet new people who work for other companies. And they all understand the challenge of having a full-time job and doing a degree at the same time – it takes determination to do it. I have uni work to do in the evenings and have to sacrifice some weekends too but work is supportive and gives me extra time off when assignments are due.’

Is starting an apprenticeship always tough?

Despite the challenges, you won’t necessarily find starting your apprenticeship to be a big leap. Ben Miles, an infrastructure technician degree apprentice at Google, says: ‘The transition from school to work was easier than I was expecting. I wasn’t told exactly what to do and where to be at all points during the day, and I had the freedom to manage my own time, find out what I enjoyed and focus on projects that would give me the exposure and experience that would benefit me. It’s much more liberating than school. I spend around 20% of my time studying and in training and am able to maintain a good work/study balance.’

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