personal topical

A year as an apprentice

I’m coming up to the end of my year as an apprentice. With any luck, only two crappy pay checks remain before I become a regular member of staff. As someone that always planned on going to university, this calls for some evaluation. If I’m honest, the whole thing has been one of the best flukes of my life so far. I only took the job out of desperation because my old one was making me miserable; and turns out I’ve loved it.

With a job naturally comes more structure and order to your life, but I’ve got the point where I’m bouncing around at 6am as opposed to questioning whether I’m alive or not – it’s great. I like having a purpose that goes beyond studying for exams. I think it’s made me less prone to procrastination and, for want of a better word, less lazy; the struggles of being in education full-time seem so silly and pointless these days. It’s hard to relate to my uni friends when they bond over failing to attend a 9am lecture, or the difficulties of fitting no more than two weeks’ worth of reading into a three month summer holiday. I work all day and then do my coursework at home in the evenings so I can finish everything on time. I don’t have the luxury of spare time. Obviously everyone works hard. I’m not trying to pull any of that my horse is bigger than your horse kind of bullshit – I’m just describing my reality. I’ve definitely found it harder work-wise, but I like being busy. This time last year the prospect of abandoning university was terrifying, whereas now I’m not sure I’ll never go.

I think your experience as an apprentice is just as much determined by the attitude of your employer than it is your own attitude. Many of the other apprentices in my class have so many horror stories about their terrible bosses, whereas it has been a much more positive experience for me. It helps when your employer is accommodating and your line manager is literally the nicest person you’ve ever met. They haven’t treated me differently to everyone else, and my boss understands I’m an independent worker in that I’d rather be given projects and then left alone to complete work in my own way and without guidance.

Hold on, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows…

I think there are improvements that could be made when it comes to accessibility and wages. The wage is shit for most apprentices, there’s no better way to frame it. It’s okay for me, because I’m from a comfortably middle class family and I’m living at home; but for others it wouldn’t be so simple. It would be harder for someone from a poorer background. Another complication that arises from low wages is that it can be a real motivation killer when you feel your employer is happy to accept cheap labour, but unwilling to give anything back. It has been the only barrier to productivity on my part. In January I contracted norovirus from my brother (throwing up all night for days – 2/10, wouldn’t recommend) which meant I had to take some time off. Admittedly on the last day of absence, whilst I wasn’t myself, I was definitely well enough to sit in the office. Bitterness towards my wage contributed to my lack of motivation to come in. My thought process was that, well, why should I bother to go in when they don’t bother to pay me enough to live on. This was a fleeting thought, and I immediately felt guilty after I’d called in sick. In every other way the job I have now is the best job I’ve ever had, and I’m actually very intolerant to bitterness. It’s an exhausting mindset to have, and a frustrating trait to witness in others. I don’t think that just because you get up in the morning and you’re a little tired or have a headache that you should just neglect your responsibilities. You should always get up if you can, because there are people relying on you to do your job.

It’s difficult to be motivated when you feel that one side is getting a lot more out of an arrangement than you are. I understand the lower wage is accepted on the understanding that you’re not fully qualified for the position yet, but I was never incompetent to begin with. Another problem is employers abusing the opportunity to train someone, instead using it to gain cheap labour via shoddy apprenticeship programmes that offer no real prospects. It happens, but for what it’s worth I think it’s pretty rare, especially now there is a legal framework in place to prevent employers from abusing the term.* 77% of apprentices already stay with their employer on completion of their programmes*. Predictably it seems to be government setting a shit example rather than private business*.

Apprenticeships vs Uni – the eternal debate…

You could argue all day about the virtues of any form of education in comparison to another; but truth be told, apprenticeships and degrees can’t really be seriously compared. They’re different types of education, and what format suits one person can be very different to what suits another. I do think apprenticeships should be pushed further as a genuine alternative to university though, especially now it’s looking as if tuition fees are set to rise again.* At the same time contact hours are getting lower and lower. There’s a fresh article questioning whether it’s still worth the investment every five minutes.*

The arrangement as it stands only promotes borrowing as a solution to all problems, and dilutes the value of the degree itself. I know I’m being a total capitalist by only judging it in economic terms; but when something costs that much money to gain, how can you view it otherwise? Obviously education doesn’t have to have commercial credibility in order for it to be valuable, but any form of education with a price tag that hefty should be an economic decision more than anything else. If you’re aiming to work in an industry that requires degree-level education as a benchmark for legal practice, then that’s fair enough. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. But if you can’t justify a degree in concrete economic terms, I do believe you’re better off looking elsewhere for your education and training. Putting yourself in a lifetimes worth of debt simply for the university experience is extremely dumb.

Take some advice from Gabriella, and go your own way*

Rather than pushing people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives into student accommodation, I think we should encourage people to look at other options. Even if it’s just as simple as taking a year out to be sure it is the right route for you. Schools do an excellent job of convincing college students that university is the only option, and to do anything else is to sacrifice any chance of a decent future; but they have a vested interest in keeping it this way. It looks good on their records to have lots of students heading off to uni. I was never told about other forms of training at school, and I know when I go to careers events with work, asking students what they know about apprenticeships will get you shrugs and blank faces.

It can be daunting to ignore them and go your own way; but you don’t need to gain a degree to be educated, especially in an economy that trades on information. You can learn just about anything you want with an internet connection and some self-discipline. Nor does your level of formal education determine intelligence. I’ve learnt this simply from proofreading the testimonials my workplace receives from some of its degree students. I was always led to believe that degree education was for more academic students, but the atrocious spelling and grammar that I sort out as a matter of routine would suggest otherwise. Spelling doesn’t determine intelligence either, but it’s not unreasonable to expect that those pursuing a degree can successfully spell degree, as well as form a coherent sentence. Everyone should have the opportunity to pursue higher education, but it if comes at the cost of academic standards then there needs to be an understanding that commercially that qualification will become less valuable over time.

All the power to online learning…

I wonder how higher education will change in years to come. I think the status that comes with an education at a top institution like Oxford and Cambridge will keep the power of the traditional university alive for a long time yet, but my hope is that the educational landscape will become much more diverse and not be dominated by expensive qualifications. Hopefully then people will stop assuming that a certain level of education automatically entitles them to a job. With any luck, in time employers will stop assuming a lack of formal qualification to mean a lack of ability or intelligence, and the nature of the job interview will be changed so that it is more practical. Rather than asking people to explain why they are qualified, they should be given the chance to prove it.

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