Apprenticeships can be an invaluable tool in helping to create social diversity in the workforce. Many professions can be out of reach for those without deep pockets to fund the necessary degrees needed, but programmes that offer the chance to work and study at the same time provide another route in.

The legal industry has for a while now offered apprenticeships, but things are gathering pace with the introduction this September of the government-backed ‘Trailblazer’ scheme, whereby aspiring solicitors can qualify while they work. Law firms are also open to offering apprenticeships to business services professionals wishing to enter the legal industry.

One example is DWF, which offers non-legal apprenticeships to school/college leavers to work in one of its central support teams (office management, finance or IT) while working towards gaining nationally recognised qualifications from professional bodies such as City & Guilds, BIFM or AAT.

Building a supportive culture

 

But while the government is pushing hard to promote high-quality apprenticeships, firms and individuals face a challenge. Such schemes need buy-in at all levels of the business: apprentices need to be given full support, mentoring, and the opportunity to take on more challenging work in line with their increasing depth of knowledge that they are gaining on the academic side.

Care must also be taken that divisions do not creep into the business. Those that have entered via a traditional university route may think that they are the superior cousins to the ‘mere’ apprentice; the apprentice meanwhile could see themselves as having the upper hand as they have more direct business experience.

Management teams, and particularly HR, need to know how to manage and develop people who have the same potential, but come from different avenues. They need to work hard to ensure that whatever their backgrounds, the culture is supportive and that people across teams, practice groups and sectors are able to work seamlessly together.

Challenge and opportunity

 

For the individual plotting their future career, much thought needs to be given as to which path to follow to reach their goal. Apprenticeships have the obvious financial advantage in that it is possible to attain high-level qualifications without necessarily attending university and all the costs that entails. They also have other benefits such as the chance to gain relevant work experience, find a mentor, and have some degree of job security – unlike the university route with no guarantee of employment at the end. The likes of paid study leave, and possible employment benefits such as private healthcare and subsidised gym membership are also enticing.

Apprenticeships are by no means the easier option. Apprentices have to work hard, juggling both work and study. It should also be considered that they will miss out on university life – university for many is a rite of passage: leaving home, becoming more independent and enjoying the perks of student life. Apprenticeships can also be a huge transition for those coming straight from a school environment, in their teenage years, into what can be quite a formal culture.

Having said that, apprenticeships are enjoying growing status. The introduction of the Trailblazer scheme in particular sends an important signal – the legal industry is casting its net wide in order to find and nurture the talent it needs to support the many developments it has seen in recent years. This is a force for the good in encouraging those who would otherwise be deterred from professions where expensive university education is the only way in. But it is more crucial than ever to ensure that the standard of apprenticeships is high so that the trained apprentice has parity with their university-schooled colleagues.

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