Apprenticeships: valuable free training or naked exploitation?

For school leavers and those finding it hard to find suitable employment, apprenticeships may appear enticing. Yet there is a fair amount of controversy around this type of on-the-job training, with some going as far as calling it “naked exploitation”.

So are apprenticeships a source of valuable free training or merely a method of exploitation by businesses?

Let’s look at the arguments…

Apprenticeships provide valuable free training

Let’s face it: academia isn’t for everyone. Some people excel at remembering facts and theories and being able to reproduce them under exam conditions, many do not.

Apprenticeships can offer those more inclined towards hands-on learning a path into full-time employment while also providing a wage, albeit reduced. They also seem a much more suitable entry point for more practical professions such as plumbing and carpentry than academic study.

The on-the-job dimension of apprenticeship training can provide skills other than theoretical knowledge, like dealing with office politics, for example, which prospective employers value.


For some placements an apprenticeship has the potential to be worse than useless. For example, some apprentices in retail are able to pick up the general day-to-day tasks fairly quickly, leaving them stuck in a long-term commitment that pays less than minimum wage.

Then there is the fact that apprentices are left completely at the mercy of their supervisor who, in all probability, is not getting any extra time or money for the task. It’s not unheard of for apprentices to be given only a few hours of photocopying and research to do over the course of a work day – providing little value and frustrating the apprentice.

Some apprenticeships seem downright bizarre too. Why would someone agree to a year-long apprenticeship stacking shelves in a supermarket for less than minimum wage when there are 16 year olds doing the job for a better wage?

Still growing in popularity

Whatever you think of apprenticeships in general, their popularity is still growing. In 2008 apprenticeships were under fulfilled, with National Apprenticeship Week focusing on attracting more young and unemployed into the positions.

Fast forward five years and the situation is reversed – now apprenticeships are hugely oversubscribed. In fact, according to figures released by the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) there are now as many as 13.9 applications for every available apprenticeship position.

Rank Apprenticeship type Applications Vacancies Applications per vacancy
1 Business and admin 311190 26480 11.8
2 Childcare 76410 5490 13.9
3 Customer services 72220 10460 6.9
5 IT and telecoms 66650 5040 13.2
6 Manufacturing 41870 3540 11.8
7 Hospitality/catering 40186 8650 4.6
8 Health/social care 31570 4410 7.2
9 Retail 31140 3300 9.4
10 Hairdressing 30480 3360 9.1
Source: National Apprenticeship Service

Do to this huge rise in demand, this year’s National Apprenticeship Week was focused more on finding new employers willing to offer apprenticeship schemes. According to the NAS there have been an additional 14,000 apprenticeship places pledged, almost doubling the current number of positions.

What do you think? Are apprenticeships a useful way to earn and learn or are they a method of backdoor exploitation?

If you would like to investigate apprenticeships further take a look at the National Apprenticeship Service website or contact the National Careers Service for some impartial personalised advice.



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