The value of apprenticeships: A one-to-one interview with Bianca Miller
- Bianca Miller-Cole
The rising number of apprenticeships is great for careers and businesses, says Bianca Miller, who has seen first-hand how well they work.
“When I was leaving school, had I known then what I know now about the importance of building relationships, marketing yourself and getting workplace experience, I definitely would have considered an apprenticeship. I may have been in a much better position - I certainly wouldn’t have a large student loan to repay.”
It says a lot when someone with the business acumen of Bianca Miller - a well-respected public speaker and mentor who runs her own company and came within a stocking’s width of securing a £250,000 investment from Lord Sugar on The Apprentice - makes such an admission about her career path.
Her praise for apprenticeships as an attractive option for school leavers - regardless of the industry - comes from a position of in-depth knowledge on the subject too.
Some schools won’t even advise apprenticeships
Bianca says an apprenticeship was “never really given as an option” when she was making her own decisions at 16 and 18, but since forging her own career Bianca has been heavily involved in providing and advising on apprenticeships for both her own business and wider groups of young people.
“If I'm quite honest with you, apprenticeships weren’t even mentioned in my school’s careers advice. It was a very academic school so the expectation was that we all went straight on to university,” she says.
“We were just led to do the UCAS form and apprenticeships were not something that I’d heard about. Even when I speak to school leavers now it seems like this is still the case for a lot of people growing up.”
Why employers love apprentices
Bianca’s path through education took something of a traditional route - from her GCSEs and A-Levels at Sydenham High School in south London to a Business and Management Studies degree at the University of Sussex. However, after she’d gone out on her own into the world of business ownership in 2012 she got first-hand experience of just how rewarding the best apprenticeships can be, to all involved.
“I started The Be Group and was looking at getting employees. It being a small business, apprentices were the most viable option – not just because they are slightly less expensive from a salary perspective but it meant I could find someone who could grow with the business,” she says.
“My first employee was an apprentice, and she was fantastic for me. I learnt a lot about myself as a manager - what it was like having someone who was actively learning all the time and who I could mentor because she was brand new to the world of employment. It was also equally rewarding for her - she got a lot more exciting, hands-on business experience than she otherwise might have at that age.”
Discussing apprenticeships with your parents is a good thing
Last year, 235,000 18-year-olds entered university compared with just 126,000 under-19s starting apprenticeships. So what’s stopping more people opting for a route directly into the jobs world? One of the biggest challenges, according to Bianca, is combating the perception of apprenticeships. But this isn’t where you’d think, with the school leavers themselves - it’s more about their parents and teachers, and those giving them careers advice.
“It sounds really clichéd, but it’s true that my parents had the biggest influence on my career choices - and they probably still do,” she smiles. “But that shows how important it is to change their perceptions of apprenticeships because, when I was at school, if my parents had said to me that was the way to go and not university, that’s probably the route I would’ve looked at instead, if I'm very honest.”
Many parents of those about to leave school will have grown up with the word ‘apprenticeship’ meaning a manual labour job, and the courses they’ll have heard of may have been quite poorly paid. However, Bianca herself can testify to the fact that apprentices have now become a big part of modern-day business and in a huge variety of industries, including traditionally 'academic' professions such as accounting and finances.
“The perception is absolutely changing. Organisations like EY, who also run their My Future Now campaign, and some top banks and other big institutions are offering apprenticeships, so it’s not just something that builders or trading firms use,” she adds.
Apprenticeships vs University
Bianca also believes the increase in university tuition fees is having a big effect and pushing people into being more picky when it comes to a job search: “You can come out of university with £30,000 or £40,000 of debt, which really makes people think twice.
“It’s a lot of money, so you have to know that at the end of your degree you will have something tangible you can use. If not, you may as well invest your time in getting the skills you need in an organisation that’s going to support you, mentor you, and give you that time, space, and energy to grow.
“You may be earning slightly less to begin with than on graduate schemes but the best apprenticeships don’t just have to be for one year. After that there’s level two, three and four - at which point it’s equivalent to a degree, and you’ve had four years of work experience a graduate hasn’t. You could end up in a leadership position with a decent salary in three or four years.”
Where National Apprenticeships Week fits in
With National Apprenticeships Week 2016 upon us, what are events like this doing to espouse the virtues of apprenticeships? And what could be done differently?
“First of all a lot of young people don’t want to just be lectured on the merits of apprenticeships by older people, they want to hear from apprentices themselves, those who have had the experience. Young people may not fully understand apprenticeships, but their teachers don’t either and sometimes the parents don’t,” says Bianca candidly.
“It’s almost a case of trying to speak to everyone to say, ‘okay, teachers, this is why it’s important and here are some examples of people who’ve made a great success of having completed an apprenticeship’, then also getting parents to speak up, and say ‘actually, yes, I was really against it but now my child’s finished it and look at what’s happened’. It’s really about getting a variety of stakeholders involved, understanding how apprenticeships work, and what they can do to encourage greater participation.”
Bianca’s own first experience of an apprentice
For Bianca, that need to get parents, career advisors and school leavers on the same page was highlighted by the experience she had with her first apprentice.
“Her mum was really angry when she decided to do an apprenticeship with me, and didn’t agree with her because she thought she should go to university,” she remembers. “After she’d been with my business for almost a year, we started discussing her career options. We mapped out her career path together and she decided she needed to go to university and get a degree to become a psychologist.
“The funny thing was her mum, who’d seen how much she had matured and learned through her apprenticeship, then said, ‘no, you don’t need to go to university, stay with Bianca’! It’s all about perception.”