Sponsored feature, words by Russ Thorne

Apprenticeships have been offering people a route into a career for a long while. Centuries, in fact: Leonardo da Vinci was an apprentice at an artist's workshop in the 15th century and things turned out pretty well for him (even if he couldn't quite get Mona Lisa to smile). Yet there's often confusion around their modern incarnation, so here are some things to bear in mind...

1 - There's a huge amount of variety

CGI employees
The common view of apprenticeships is that they're limited to training people for areas like construction or engineering. It's true that you can build (sorry) a career in those industries using an apprenticeship, but there are hundreds of other options available as well, from media to marketing.

An apprenticeship can lead to a career in all kinds of areas, even within the same company. CGI,
for example, is just one employer but they offer apprenticeships in payroll, business admin, software development and cyber security.

2 - They offer higher level qualifications

Another cherished misconception is that apprenticeships are somehow a 'plan B' for students who are less academically able than others (try telling that to Leonardo). The assumption is that you might get a trade, but not a top qualification at the end of your apprenticeship.

However, a Higher Apprenticeship is a Level Four qualification, which actually puts it on the same level as a foundation degree. As a higher apprentice you'll study some serious subjects – CGI's L4 apprentices cover areas like Java programming, software testing and the awesome-sounding 'common attack techniques' as part of their studies.

3 - You'll gain transferable skills

If you're not familiar with how an apprenticeship works, the approach is pretty simple: your employer gives you a job and a salary (how much depends on the employer) and trains you in the workplace. You'll also study with a training provider, such as a college, either by going to classes during the week (on day release or in the evenings) or through online study – again, it depends on the apprenticeship.

Another common worry about apprenticeships is that because they prime you for a specific job, you'll leave with a limited set of skills. However, as well as your course studies you'll be spending time around colleagues, learning about communication, working in a team, being responsible for your timetable and generally becoming an independent, proactive employee: these are skills that any employer, in any industry, will love.

4 - You can combine them with other qualifications, like degrees

Once an apprenticeship ends, it doesn't symbolise a full stop at the end of your education journey as well. You can use it as the launchpad to other qualifications, including a degree – in fact, there are an increasing number of combined apprenticeship / degree programmes offered by employers all over the country. The principle is the same: you work for your employer at the same time as studying for your degree, applying your academic learning in the workplace as you go.
CGI graduates

For example, CGI's sponsored degree programme
offers students the chance to gain a Higher Apprenticeship as well as degree (a BSc Information Systems Management or a BA Business Management for IT) in partnership with the University of Winchester.

5 - They can give you a head start on graduates

Make no mistake, going to uni and getting a degree can be a tremendous, life-changing experience. But it's not for everyone: some people don't fancy the student life and want to crack on with their careers, for example; others don't want the financial burden.

Choosing an apprenticeship will offer a very different experience and it can even give you an advantage over graduates: by the time a grad has earned their degree and started looking for work, an apprentice is already three years into their career. They have the technical skills but also the professional experience to help them get on; and they don't have the student debt. With programmes like CGI's, they'll also have a guaranteed job when the apprenticeship ends, provided they complete everything.

So if you're not sure uni is the right option for you but you do want high level qualifications and a varied, challenging career, it's worth looking at modern apprenticeships. They offer more opportunities than you might think, and the potential rewards could make Mona herself smile.