Apprenticeships vs Placements: Which is better?

The terminology around apprenticeships can be confusing. What is an apprenticeship? How does it differ from an internship? What about a work placement?

Don’t worry, the team at Best Apprenticeships is here to help. In this article, we will outline the differences between apprenticeships and placements and the benefits and drawbacks of each. That way you can make an informed choice about which might suit you best on your career.

What’s the difference between an apprenticeship and a placement?

An apprenticeship is a paid position combining hands-on experience with classroom training and assessments to earn a qualification. Apprentices earn at least the minimum wage for their age group, and their employer and the UK Government fund their training. Apprenticeships are undertaken instead of a traditional university course, although some are developed by universities and allow you to get a university degree.

Placements, also known as internships or, occasionally, a ‘Year in the Industry’ opportunity, give young people a chance to observe an industry or role first-hand. They are typically offered to students in their second or third year of university. Accepting a placement year means the student defers their third year of study in favour of working a full-time job in their chosen industry. 

You can also find short-term work placements (usually around two weeks) where you can observe a job or industry first-hand as a guest of a particular company. These work experience opportunities are usually unpaid.

Apprenticeships and placements both offer a ‘leg-up’ in your chosen industry, helping you gain real-world experience and learn specific skills related to your future career. 

The main difference is that an apprenticeship is a self-contained qualification, which you work towards earning. 

A placement occurs as part of your studies for the qualification you are already studying for at university. For example, nursing degrees include a placement in a real hospital, nursing home or clinic to ensure students can apply the theory they have learned under supervision in a medical setting. The same applies to an engineering degree. 

Work placements as part of your university course may be called ‘industry placements’ and typically account for around 20% of the course. The other 80% is spent in the classroom. 

With an apprenticeship, this is reversed, with 80% of the time dedicated to paid work and 20% to related studies and assessments to gain your apprenticeship qualification. 

Are placements and apprenticeships both paid? 

By law, apprenticeships are always paid, with apprentices guaranteed to earn at least the minimum wage for their age group. Many companies will offer apprentices a much higher wage to attract the best candidates. 

Work placements and internships may be paid or unpaid depending on the length of placement, the role, and the company offering the opportunity. If the student is classed as a worker, they will be paid accordingly. However, some interns may not be classed as staff. Some companies, such as Santander, offer ‘intern salary matching’, so you can be sure you are not being taken advantage of. 

How long does each usually last?

An apprenticeship can take between one and five years to complete, depending on the level and role. Placements can be much shorter, but university placements last a minimum of 24 weeks and tend to be year-long placements as part of a university course.  

How do I apply? 

To apply for an apprenticeship you need to do some research on the company you are hoping to work with. Then, craft a CV and cover letter displaying your suitability for the role and why they should choose you. It’s a competitive field, so you should apply for more than one apprenticeship while you are waiting to hear back. You will likely be called to an interview and may have to complete an assessment to reach the next stage. 

Industry placements may be a course requirement or optional. Either way, you need to apply with your CV and cover letter to secure a desirable location. Like apprenticeships, industry placements are competitive, with an average of 82 applicants for every place.

The best time to apply for an industry placement is at the start of your second year. Some employers will close the positions early if they get a strong response, so you could miss out.

You can find placement opportunities on job boards and sites such as RateMyPlacement. Then it’s a case of passing interviews and assessments just like an apprenticeship or any other job.

What are the entry requirements? 

The basic requirements for an apprenticeship are as follows: 

  • You must be aged 16 or over
  • You must not be in full-time education when the apprenticeship starts
  • You must be living in the UK

Other requirements vary depending on the level of apprenticeship, the industry and the company involved. However, grades Cs or above in GCSE (or equivalent) English and Maths are usually required. Some apprenticeships will allow candidates to complete these qualifications during their first year. 

Industry placements are usually run with your university, so you typically meet the requirements by passing your first and second-year exams. 

What qualifications can you gain?

An apprenticeship programme can help you to earn the equivalent of GCSEs, A Levels, a foundation degree, a Bachelor’s degree or even a Master’s degree, depending on the level of apprenticeship.

Since an industry placement is part of your degree qualification, you do not gain a qualification purely for completing your placement. 

What are the main benefits of an apprenticeship?

  • You can gain real-world experience in your chosen role or industry
  • There are numerous apprenticeship career opportunities open to you
  • You may have the opportunity to be mentored by a senior member of the staff
  • You can upskill to advance your career prospects
  • You earn a stable living wage until your apprenticeship is complete
  • You can earn a degree or other qualification
  • You won’t have to pay back any student loans
  • You can network and make industry contacts to help progress your career
  • Some apprenticeships provide the opportunity to travel
  • The company may decide to hire you full-time once your apprenticeship ends

What are the main drawbacks of an apprenticeship?

  • You may miss out on the typical university experience by not being a full-time student
  • You are likely to only earn a minimum wage
  • You may be disqualified from roles which require a university degree if your apprenticeship is not degree level
  • The responsibilities placed on you can be overwhelming
  • You get fewer/shorter holidays
  • You need to meet the specific entry requirements, which differ between companies and apprenticeships
  • Apprenticeships can be very competitive, so your application may not be successful 

What are the main benefits of a placement? 

  • You will be a more desirable prospective employee 
  • You can gain positive references for future jobs
  • Costs are usually included in your university course
  • You may earn a living wage
  • You will gain real-world experience in your chosen role
  • You can put your learning into practice in a supervised setting
  • Studies show those who do a placement year tend to do better in their final year exams

What are the main drawbacks of a placement? 

  • You may not be paid 
  • You have to defer your studies for up to a year
  • You may not have a great trainer, and issues can occur
  • It can be a stressful or negative situation for some
  • Some people find it difficult to return to university after working in the real world
  • Placements can be dangerous depending on the industry and level of supervision
  • There is not often a job waiting in the same place when you complete your final year

Which is the better option?

As you will now realise, it is not a straight choice as placements are usually part of university study, while apprenticeships are usually undertaken instead of a university course.

The better option depends on your circumstances and what you hope to achieve. 

For example, if you have dependents, an unpaid internship may not be feasible. Equally, you may not want to defer your studies for a year to complete a placement.

On the other hand, an apprenticeship isn’t the right fit for everyone, and a year in the industry is a way for university students to catch up to apprentices’ on-the-job experience and learned skills.

An apprenticeship is more likely to lead directly to a job with the same company. It’s unlikely that a position will be open where you complete your third-year placement once you graduate. 

However, apprenticeships and work placements both increase your employability to those you have worked with and other companies who value your experience and training.

We hope you now have a clearer understanding of apprenticeships and placements and what each entails.

If you would like to discuss your options or have any questions we haven’t yet answered, please, don’t hesitate to get in touch.