Proper apprenticeships

At 18 I left school with two A-levels and became an articled clerk studying to be a chartered accountant – at 21 I qualified as an associate, a fellow at 25.

More of this please. For there’s a very limited number of things which require a degree to be able to do. Being an academic is one of them. Other than that, well, teacher, nurse, social worker, lawyer, accountant, even engineer, why?

24 thoughts on “Proper apprenticeships”

  1. There’s a suspicion that apprenticeships are just a way for companies to get cheap labour. Does it really take seven years to train an accountant? We won WWII in just six years.

  2. Andrew M said:
    “Does it really take seven years to train an accountant?”

    That’s only 3 years’ training – 18 to “at 21 I qualified as an associate”. At that point you’re fully qualified. The “fellow at 25” is just a little, pretty much irrelevant, extra that shows that you’ve managed to do it for a few years without getting into serious trouble.

  3. It’s sheer credentialism, although I’d continue to prefer the people designing bridges, aeroplanes or spacecraft to have degrees.

  4. @Jonathon: I’d prefer them to be competent rather than have degrees. I’ve met quite a few with degrees (including doctorates) that were worse than useless in the real world.

  5. Re Johnathan- all Engineering institutions used to have their own examination system, training being conducted as part of effectively an apprenticeship, by people with long practical experience in the field as well as qualifications. I’d rather have engineers trained by people who have actually designed things that work than by people who have merely passed exams.
    That ended once the universities persuaded government to fund their expansion.

  6. Andrew M,

    “There’s a suspicion that apprenticeships are just a way for companies to get cheap labour. ”

    A lot of the new ones are dodgy AF. People making pizzas as an apprenticeship. No, that’s a job.

    The reason the old apprenticeships died was labour mobility and government interference in contracts. No-one is going to invest £10K in classroom training a programmer for weeks who can walk out the day after the last course and into another job. Everyone forgets that old apprenticeships often included having to pay to join, or having years of indentured service as part of the conditions.

    Around the early 90s, some companies came up with a scheme where they would train people as programmers, but if they left within 2 years, would have to repay the training. Worked for a while until someone went to court to protest and the court said it was an unfair contractual clause, and so everyone stopped doing it.

  7. Arthur and Pat, until we can re-instate the in-house examination/certification process- which could take years – a degree in engineering is the only measure we have. I’m sure though that, like most degrees, they have been watered down.

  8. Speaking as an engineer – it’s the maths. Everything else can be learned by ‘sitting next to Sarah’ but you can’t learn engineering maths on-the-job. Even now that computers have taken away all the endless rote-work, you still have to learn the principles of the computational work they do, whether it be fluid dynamics, stress analysis or gravitational mechanics. And the only way (that I know of) to learn that, unless one is some sort of Will Hunting idiot-savant, is a course of intensive study under expert teachers, that takes most people two or three years. I suspect medicine is much-the same.



  9. PS just to note that the US has the qualification of PE – Professional Engineer – which is a State-licensed qualification which is required to offer engineering services for hire or reward. It’s like an MD for engineers. The examinations to get the PE are notoriously rigourous, with failure rates of 50% and more – but the PE does not (AFAIK) require an engineering degree, and it’s not unknown for an auto-didact or a highly-experienced worker to pass for a PE. But it requires extensive learning, not unlike what’s required for a bachelor’s degree.



  10. Apprenticeships work well in fields where the universities haven’t yet stuck their oar in. Rugby players for example. And if you are a star like Smith, Harlequins will offer you a wage as an “apprentice” that is more than your average senior player, to stop other clubs poaching.

    I’ve met apprentices from EY, KPMG and others who are very happy with their training and loyal to their employer. It requires a good scheme, but most companies have lost the ability to design a good training structure.

  11. “a course of intensive study under expert teachers, that takes most people two or three years. ”
    With respect, that sounds like how many years a university course in mathematics lasts. One needs the entirety of mathematics to do engineering? I very much doubt it.

  12. I’d say that’s actually the problem with the education system. It sees knowledge as an end in itself. Education’s merely a tool to achieve what needs achieving. It has no value in itself.

  13. I’ve taught a lot of people english. I never try to teach them to read or write it & have to negotiate the illogical vagaries of english spelling. They don’t need it. They need to be able to speak & understand it. Usually takes a couple of weeks & they can have a conversation about the things they need to have conversations about. They are functional in english. It doesn’t require spending hundreds & months on a language course learning things they will rarely if ever need.

  14. The senior partner at the law firm where my father served his apprenticeship in the ’50s didn’t have a degree. That was unusual even then, but go back a further generation or two and it was the norm.

    “… most companies have lost the ability to design a good training structure.”

    That’s the trouble. It’s easy to destroy something, much harder to rebuild.

  15. “you can’t learn engineering maths on-the-job” My undergraduate Director of Studies always recommended that we choose options on things that we wouldn’t be able to pick up at work later on. So if the choice were between, say, Statistical Thermodynamics or Accounting, choose the first.

    One of the oddest lessons of my boyhood was the distinction between the bits of physics that I could easily teach myself from a book – e.g. elementary quantum theory, special relativity – and the bits that I couldn’t e.g. classical thermodynamics. The distinction wasn’t to do with how “advanced” a topic was, it turned on finding a book that was well enough written to be any use.

  16. BoM4 – I was on just such a contract when I joined my first employer after graduating in 1988. I stuck it for 6 years and was v loyal until it became clear that they were heading for the cliff.

    BlokeinSpain – and of course the first thing one teaches them is “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

  17. My experience as an electrical engineer shows that you need math up through differential calculus. You also need a big side helping of linear algebra and probability. This goes across all the engineering disciplines, as the underlying math is similar for electronics, thermal, aerodynamics and structural fields.

    Coming out with an engineering degree only gives you a good basis. It then takes another 5 to 7 years to learn the pitfalls of real world design under an experienced engineer. At this point the engineer is ready to lead a small project. After another 7 to 10 years they will ready to lead a large project.

    It takes a couple of decades on top of a university education to grow a fully capable engineer. Of course, the Peter Principle always applies.

  18. Having a professional accounting designation and no degree I can attest that it totally screws up HR and recruiting systems. As I now work in IT also noticed every job seems to require a computer science degree, when I’ve done hiring I have insisted on seeing all the applications not just the HR filtered ones. My wife qualified as a nurse before it became a degree and sees similar issues. By making all nursing jobs require a degree they are effectively losing all the experienced older nurses. I’ve heard older Project Managers make complaints about the PM certification becoming a defacto standard for contract work.
    Fixing the recruitment processes to not just be a tick box exercise you have to navigate through to get past the first stage would help a lot.

  19. Barristers used to train via pupillage without degrees, and the silks and judges produced that way were rather better than much of the shite they’re churning out now. But it’s the Long March, isn’t it? If Smythe is learning at the feet of Fortescue QC and they are appearing before HHJ Cholmondley QC who does things the way his pupilmaster did them, the government has less sway than if it controls the inflow via universities.

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