What is an apprenticeship?

Questions and question marks - apprenticeships explained
Find out about different types of apprenticeships and what their levels mean.

Apprenticeships offer a chance to work towards qualifications through an employer while earning. For example, you might work in an entry-level job for four days of the week, and study at an FE college or designated training centre on the fifth day. They usually take one to four years to complete – occasionally five. You are not guaranteed a job with your apprenticeship provider at the end of your apprenticeship but will have gained both experience and a nationally recognised qualification, so should be in a good position to find employment elsewhere if necessary.

There is an official national framework for apprenticeships, which sets out the level of qualification associated with different levels of apprenticeship. Employers can claim grants for offering apprenticeships and the system is overseen and regulated by the government.

Apprenticeship levels explained

In England, there are currently four levels of apprenticeship: intermediate, advanced, higher and degree. They all involve a work-based learning programme and lead to nationally recognised qualifications.

  • Intermediate apprenticeships are level 2 qualifications and are equivalent to GCSE passes at grades A*–C (4–9 on the new system).
  • Advanced apprenticeships are level 3 qualifications and are equivalent to A level passes.
  • Higher apprenticeships lead to qualifications at level 4 and above.
  • A degree apprenticeship involves gaining a university degree while you work (level 6 or above).

If you're not sure what the levels mean:

  • level 4/5 is equivalent to a higher education certificate, higher education diploma or a foundation degree (the first year of a degree)
  • level 6 is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree
  • level 7 is equivalent to a master’s degree.

To get onto a higher apprenticeship or degree apprenticeship you’ll normally need a level 3 qualification such as an advanced apprenticeship, A levels or NVQ level 3. You’ll also need to have a level 2 qualification such as an intermediate apprenticeship or five good GCSE passes (grades A*–C or 4–9).

Types of apprenticeships

Apprenticeships can get you into a huge range of careers, from marketing and the media to science or finance. Take a look at our career sectors to find out about the routes into different careers and whether you can get into the job you want via an apprenticeship or similar programme.

The apprenticeships wage

The apprenticeship national minimum wage (NMW) from April 2017 is £3.50 an hour for apprentices aged 16–18 and apprentices aged 19 and over who are in their first year, less than the NMW for other employees of the same age. After the first year, apprentices aged over 19 are due the NMW for their age – currently either £5.60 (if you're 18 to 20) or £7.05 (if you're 21 to 24), though these figures are revised each April. However, many employers pay more than the NMW.

You can use the National Apprenticeships Service search tool to search for apprenticeships. However, if you are also interested in other types of school leaver opportunity, such as school leaver programmes or sponsored degrees, you should also use the TARGETcareers search and go to employers’ websites for further details.

There are separate systems for searching for apprenticeships in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Alternatives to higher apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships

If you’re interested in apprenticeships and are planning on taking A levels or equivalent before you start, there are several other options you could consider. Programmes labelled as school leaver programmes also involve earning and learning; sponsored degrees sometimes do the same, or may involve going to university full time but receiving financial support for your studies. Read our article on alternatives to university to find out more.

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