Apprenticeships: My favourite myths, nightmares and lies…

What if I’ve been wrong this whole time about apprentices and apprenticeships?

What if I’ve been wrong this whole time about apprentices and apprenticeships? I’ve always been a huge fan of apprenticeships because of all the good mine did for me. What if I am the exception to the rule or am the odd one out?

I’ve been supporting apprentices since the end of 2010 and for the last few years have worked with 60-90 different young people each year. Over this time I have spoken with many employers and apprentices alike and I’ve observed a number of common complaints about apprenticeships from both, and I want to address these complaints based on what I have seen and experienced working with apprentices in the real world and workplace.

1 - “Apprentices have no work ethic!”

I have to talk about this one first as it is the most damning of all the complaints I’ve heard. Maybe you’ve worked with an apprentice and you’ve noticed them standing around not looking sure of themselves, twiddling their thumbs and yawning a lot. In some trades it’s a stereotype it is so common but I want to dig a little deeper…

For some apprentices, and I’ll include my own experience with this, their apprenticeship is the first real job they have ever had and it is a little terrifying. Think about it; some will have spent the last few years of their life in high school, possibly in comfort, possibly keep their head down or possibly hating every second of it, but always in the same familiar place, with the same familiar faces that they have become used to over a long time.

All of a sudden they are cast into a completely different environment, forced into unfamiliar territory with new people and asked to do things they would have never thought of or imagined before, using parts of their brains and muscles that they might have never used before. It is a slight shock to the system and understandably at the start, they aren’t going to know what they are doing.

The good thing is that this is usually temporary, depending on their spark they will start to understand how the organisation works, what needs doing, and when to do it. Furthermore, employers and trainers can help with this by showing these apprentices what needs doing, and supporting them through these steps, and patiently holding them to account.

Like most of us, if an apprentice is left to their own devices without knowing what they are doing, they are going stand around looking useless, but with a little engagement and encouragement, they will learn how to help their team and proactively join in.

2 - “Apprentices and young people have a bad attitude!”

This is a common misunderstanding when working with young people new to the workplace. In my experience, it is very rarely an outright bad attitude, but rather it is because young people haven’t always mastered how to talk to people slightly their senior.

Previously the main adults in their lives will have been parents and teachers. Parents who may have a little over nurturing or a little over controlling, or in worst cases, not present at all, and teachers who may have come across as too strict or too soft, or spent their time dealing with other people who needed more attention and ignoring the now apprentice.

Now the apprentice is in the workplace and is encouraged to act like an adult, where the other adults in their life are peers and equals. This change of outlook sometimes takes time to adjust to and become comfortable with.

On the bright side; all the successful apprentices I’ve worked with have had another common factor, and that is at least one mentor to take them under their wing and guide them. When an apprentice has someone they can confide in, who will show them how to do their technical role but also be an example in their role as an adult member of the workforce, the apprentice always benefits and grows.

Personally I will always be grateful to my mentors on my apprenticeship; Trev and (misery) Steve, for showing me not just how to print and use machines, but how to deal with problems, look after things that make your life easier, work smart and most importantly, how to talk to people with confidence.

3 - “Young people are spoiled and think the world owes them a favour!”

This one just isn’t true; in my experience, there are people of all ages who think like this; there is an epidemic of people who think the world owes them a favour and an epidemic of people who think that other people think the world owes them a favour.

If apprentices thought like this, they wouldn’t be apprentices, I would go a far to say that apprentices think the complete opposite of this and that is why they became apprentices, because they know that the world doesn’t owe them anything and they want to go out and earn their place in the world instead. In my opinion, this is an excellent reason to employ an apprentice in the first place.

4 - “They’re cheap labour because they cost more in other ways!”

This one could be true; in my first week I destroyed a couple of hundred pounds worth of NCR paper by loading it into a printing press upside down, it turns out that that was a stupid thing to do. On the other hand a year later, I was running a small printing press that was churning out many times my annual salary every month. The gain always out-weighs the cost.

Anyone new to a workplace makes mistakes regardless of experience.  Perhaps an apprentice makes more mistakes, but it is more likely that the apprentice’s work is being checked and the mistakes corrected, and that they are learning from these mistakes as they go. Often apprentices are given the work that is safe to make mistakes on so that they can learn.

An apprentice does require training, which means that often another member of staff will have to look after them and that can be seen as a cost, but in my observation I have seen that often after the initial induction, the mentor’s role is less a constant trainer, but more of a support, to be available when needed.

Mentor relationships that work well can even help make the training staff’s job role easier by; having someone to do other jobs for them, having an extra mind to bounce ideas off, and can even help develop their own skills by spending time training others. Research has shown that training others are one of the best ways to learn something yourself after all.

5 - “Apprenticeships do no good for their career!”

In all the years of working with apprentices, I have never had an apprentice or former apprentice tell me that it did them no good. Even this week, I have heard nothing but praise about a former apprentice’s time.

Of course I have known young people who have given up, who have been fired, or found that they couldn’t do or didn’t like what they were doing and left their company, I’ve even had young people who have seemingly vanished off the face of the earth, but this has usually been the exception to the rule. Many, many more apprentices succeed than those that don’t finish.

Better yet, many apprentices move on to bigger and better things, either taking on more responsibility in their company, moving up into management or training, or moving onto another company and taking the valuable skills they’ve gained with them. The government has published their own findings about apprenticeships that are extremely positive and I can testify to these findings.

“92% of apprentices in work felt that their apprenticeship had had a positive impact on their career.”

When people think there is no progression from apprentices, all I can think of is the dozens of employers and directors who were once apprentices who now hire apprentices too. Not to mention the routes into higher apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships that are open to many.

“Higher apprentices could earn £150,000 more on average over their lifetime compared to those with level 3 vocational qualifications.”

Reflecting back on my original question, the answer is no, I am not special, I’m not the odd one out, I’m not the exception to the rule. I am another apprentice who has grown into a fantastic career and is striving to carry on developing into bigger and better things, just like my fellow apprentices and former apprentices. If there are any of my fellows reading, keep up the good work, you’re doing great!

I would love to hear from others who have experiences or thoughts on apprentices, please leave a comment below or contact me at: