In 2016/17, 92% of apprentices said their career prospects had improved as a result of completing an apprenticeship - find out everything you need to know about joining them on this popular career path

How apprenticeships work

Apprenticeships allow you to combine work and study by mixing on-the-job training with classroom learning. You'll be employed to do a real job while studying for a formal qualification, usually for one day a week either at a college or a training centre. By the end of your apprenticeship, you'll hopefully have gained the skills and knowledge needed to either succeed in your chosen career or progress onto the next apprenticeship level.

What you'll learn depends on the role that you're training for. However, apprentices in every role follow an approved study programme, which means you'll gain a nationally-recognised qualification at the end of your apprenticeship.

These qualifications can include:

  • Functional skills - GCSE level qualifications in English, maths and IT.
  • National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) - from level 2 (comparable to five GCSEs) up to level 5 (similar to a postgraduate degree).
  • Technical certificates - such as BTEC, City and Guild Progression Award etc.
  • Academic qualifications - including a Higher National Certificate (HNC), Higher National Diploma (HND) foundation degree or the equivalent of a full Bachelors degree.

You'll also be constantly developing your transferable skills, otherwise known as soft skills, which are highly valued by employers. These include communication, teamwork and problem solving, as well as knowledge of IT and the application of numbers.

Apprenticeship levels

There are four different levels of apprenticeship:

  • Intermediate - equivalent to five good GCSE passes.
  • Advanced - equivalent to two A-level passes.
  • Higher - equivalent to the first stages of higher education, such as a foundation degree.
  • Degree - comparable to a Bachelors or Masters degree. Find out more at degree apprenticeships.

Apprenticeship level structures vary across different countries in the UK. If you aren't based in England, see Apprenticeships in Wales, Apprenticeships in Scotland or NI Direct Apprenticeships for more information.

Types of apprenticeships

Most job sectors offer apprenticeship opportunities in the UK, with a wide range of specific roles on offer within each. These include:

  • Business apprenticeships in roles such as accounting, digital marketing, people/HR administration, recruitment and sales.
  • Construction apprenticeships in roles such as building, plumbing and quantity surveying.
  • Engineering apprenticeships in roles such as civil engineering, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering.
  • Healthcare apprenticeships in roles such as dental, nursing and youth work, as well as NHS apprenticeships.
  • IT apprenticeships in roles such as information security and software development.
  • Law apprenticeships offered at paralegal, legal executive or solicitor level.
  • Media apprenticeships in roles such as journalism, live events and costume design.

You'll be able to enter your chosen sector at an apprenticeship level that reflects your previous qualifications and the demands of the role.

Length of apprenticeships

The length of your apprenticeship will depend on a number of factors, such as the level of the apprenticeship, your chosen sector, employer requirements and your individual ability.

That being said, apprenticeships will usually last between one and six years. Their length follows a basic framework:

  • intermediate apprenticeships typically last between one year and 18 months
  • advanced apprenticeships are usually studied over two years
  • higher and degree apprenticeships take three-to-six years to complete.

It's worth checking directly with your chosen employer before applying to check how long your course will last, as some won't follow this structure.

Pay rates and working hours

As an apprentice, you're entitled to the National Minimum Wage, which currently stands at £3.50 per hour. This applies to all apprentices aged 16-18, or those in the first year of their course. Once you've progressed past this level, you'll be entitled to the minimum wage rate for your age.

This pay rate is stated as a guideline - some employers will pay you a higher wage. You'll also be entitled to sick pay, any additional benefits your employer offers to its other employees, such as healthcare plans and childcare vouchers, and at least 20 days of paid holiday per year. Use the GOV.UK Holiday Calculator to work out your exact entitlement.

Your working hours will vary depending on your employer, but you won't be able to work more than 40 hours per week or any fewer than 30. Typically, you'll work between 35 and 37.5 hours per week. The sector you're entering will determine the nature of your daily working hours - while most apprentices can expect to work a 9am-5.30pm day with an hour's break for lunch, those in hospitality or healthcare roles, for instance, should expect to work antisocial shifts.

Age limit

There is no upper age limit on being an apprentice. As long as you're over 16 and have the right credentials, you'll be eligible to apply for your chosen apprenticeship.

If you start your apprenticeship after you turn 19, you may be entitled to additional government funding - find out more about what's on offer at Student Finance England - Advanced Learner Loan.

Entry requirements

As each type of apprenticeship offers a different-levelled qualification on the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), their entry requirements will vary. Generally speaking, they are as follows:

  • To apply for an intermediate apprenticeship, you'll just need to be over 16 years old and no longer in full-time education.
  • For an advanced apprenticeship, you're likely to be asked for prior work experience and at least three A*-C or 9-4 grade GCSEs or equivalent - such as an intermediate apprenticeship qualification.
  • As higher apprenticeships are the equivalent of a foundation degree, HNC or first year of a Bachelors, you'll usually need at least five A*-C or 9-4 grade GCSEs, as well as some Level 3 qualifications in relevant subjects, to apply. Your Level 3 qualifications could be AS-levels, a BTEC National or a level 3 NVQ.
  • Degree apprenticeships will have the tightest entry requirements. These may include three A-levels in a specified grade range or a higher apprenticeship qualification, on top of at least five A*-C or 9-4 GCSE grades. It's likely you'll be required to have prior work experience.

You can apply for apprenticeships at any time of the year - it all depends when an employer has a vacancy. You'll be able to check the specific entry requirements of your chosen apprenticeship once the position opens.

The difference between an apprenticeship and an internship

The terms 'apprenticeship' and 'internship' are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably. To ensure you're applying for the right positions, it's important to understand the differences between these opportunities.

Apprenticeships are:

  • formal employment programmes and as such you'll sign a contract with your employer
  • long-term and take between one to four years to complete
  • more suited to those with a clear idea of what sector they'd like to work in and what career path they'd like to follow
  • commonly undertaken by school leavers
  • designed to provide specific work-based training. Apprentices learn by actually doing the job
  • a way for apprentices to gain formal qualifications such as NVQs, foundation degrees and technical certificates
  • paid, as at the very least you'll receive the National Minimum Wage
  • a direct route to employment, with the majority of apprentices guaranteed a job on completion of their programme.

Internships are:

  • informal arrangements as more often than not no employment contracts are signed
  • short-term, limited periods lasting between one week and 12 months
  • geared towards providing an insight to those who may be unsure of what career direction to take
  • typically undertaken by students and graduates
  • work-based learning opportunities, which focus more on supplying interns with transferrable skills and experience for their CV rather than job-specific skills or formal qualifications
  • temporary, with no guarantee of employment on completion.

Learn more about what's involved in an internship.

Find out more