Sponsored feature, words by Russ Thorne
Taking an apprenticeship enables you to earn while you learnIf you're aiming high with your career and targeting a role in business, marketing, HR, accounting finance or law, it's logical to think about following the A-level and university route to the top.

However, just as there are many ways to scale a mountain, there are many alternative paths to a successful career. If you're expecting top grades but think the university route isn't for you, an equally effective option could be an apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships give you the chance to learn academic skills and follow career paths that previously were only available to graduates (with higher apprenticeship credits being comparable to the first year of a degree) with leading training providers such as a BPP Professional Apprenticeships. You'll study within your full time job learning relevant business skills - you could be anywhere from an independent local firm to a global giant like RBS, PwC or Siemens.

Money talk

You'll also get paid by your employer while you study, so you earn and learn at the same time. By this stage, you might be wondering why you haven't already heard more about this option; if so, you’re not alone. The Student Room’s recent Options 2013 research showed more than a quarter of students don't feel like they know enough about alternatives to A-levels and university.

The good news is: the information is out there. The even better news is that employers like apprentices and are keen to hire them. “Generally, our apprentices are very enthusiastic, they tend to have good attitudes and work hard,” says Helen Bloodworth, training manager for Baker Tilly Management Limited, who offer apprenticeships in partnership with BPP. The benefits for the company are clear, she continues. “We also find that apprenticeships are a really practical way for employers to train people in a job as we are giving them the skills to fit our business.”

On the job

During your apprenticeship, you'll be gaining valuable work experienceThe exact work you'll do on an apprenticeship varies depending on the industry you choose, but the value is immense to both you and your employer. Siemens offers an accountancy apprenticeship programme to school leavers. “It provides valuable work experience that cannot be gained from university alone,” explains Joanne Gogerly, a finance and commercial skills consultant at that company. “The aim of our programme is to supply talent to help develop and enhance the finance and accounting capabilities across the organisation.”

Rebecca Hulse is a high-achieving student with first-hand knowledge of the kind of job-focused skills an apprenticeship can give you. She got three A grades at A-level (including maths) and is now studying for a higher apprenticeship (Tax ATT) with BPP. She works as a tax assistant for McEwan Wallace Chartered Accountants alongside her studies, which means getting to grips with the nitty-gritty of the tax system as well as communicating with clients.

It's demanding stuff that goes way beyond crunching the numbers but Rebecca says these on-the-job skills mean she's ahead of the curve. “By having the opportunity to begin training straight from sixth form, I already have a minimum of a three-year head-start over my graduate competitors.”

More opportunities

With a focus on developing high-level academic and professional skills and being paid a salary while you train, it's easy to see why many of the best students feel that an apprenticeship is a great alternative to university when it comes to taking their first steps on to the career ladder. Plus, the number of higher apprenticeships is rising: for example, accounting firm PwC has increased the number of apprentices it's taking on by 10% this year alone, so there are more chances to get a place.

Sam Groves has certainly benefited from the opportunities an apprenticeship offers. After trying the university route and deciding it wasn't for him, he began a higher apprenticeship in accountancy. “My apprenticeship has given me a chance to study and get qualified, follow a career I’m really interested in and get paid,” he says. “I wouldn’t even think about looking back.”An apprenticeship could be a great choice, especially if you have good grades

It's important to be aware that, although apprenticeships are a lesser-known option, some – like accountancy – can still be very popular and competitive, with employers on the lookout for talented students with the best grades and a drive to succeed in their careers. If that's you, Sam's advice is to persevere. “Keep applying, don’t give up, keep trying new things,” he urges.

Getting started

Sam is the first to acknowledge that uni can be a great experience. But it's far from the only option, and with students expected to graduate more than £50,000 in debt, according to reports from Times Higher Education, an apprenticeship might prove a more appropriate and affordable route for some.

To find out more, the National Apprenticeship Service is a good starting point. Also head to the BPP website for information, and to find out about its free recruitment service. If you're interested in a career in accounting, audit, tax or management accounting, its expert apprenticeship recruitment managers will help match you with a suitable role from the vacancies they have available with top employers.

If you're not sure university is the right path up the mountain for you, and if you're looking for a cost-effective head start towards a lofty career, an apprenticeship might be the answer. Would Sam recommend it? "Definitely, a thousand times yes! For me, it’s a really effective way to learn and get to where you want to be."

Do you have questions? Head over to The Student Room's apprenticeships and alternatives to uni forum...