Earning while you learn is one of the reasons more and more young people are signing up for apprenticeships.
The number of apprentices training through West Suffolk College has almost tripled in the past five years to 1,450.
And now it’s not only in jobs like building and hairdressing where it was always a traditional way in.
“Any employer can offer an apprenticeship,” says Phil Stittle, the college’s director of business development.
“It could be in business, accounting, construction, engineering, motors, hospitality, science, IT, beauty, pharmacy, or health care.
“They just need to have the support mechanism in place.”
Getting a foothold on the career ladder while studying is increasingly seen as an appealing alternative to university.
Most people think apprentices start straight from school, and while they often do there is no upper age limit.
“We have some in their late 20s and early 30s,” said Phil. “But they could be any age.”
Next week is National Apprenticeship Week and the college is on the shortlist for a prestigious award.
It’s one of only five in the running for College Provider of the Year in the class for less than 1,500 apprentices.
From September it will also be offering new degree apprenticeships in subjects like management and law, where people work while studying for a degree.
Phil, once an apprentice himself in business admin, acts as a link between the college and employers.
“Some apprentices approach employers directly. Others come to the college first,” he said.
Parents are also tuning in to apprenticeships. More than 100 went to an information event at the college in January.
Sixteen year-old Georgia Huggins always wanted to be a hairdresser, so she was thrilled to be given an apprenticeship by salon owner Chloe Newson.
Chloe, who also trained at the college, went from Saturday girl to apprentice, to stylist, to manager. Then three years ago she bought a salon in Ipswich owned by her former employer.
“It’s exciting being my own boss – sometimes stressful but worth it in the end,” said Chloe who has just gone back to work after having a baby daughter in January.
“You learn so much being an apprentice, seeing the day to day running of the salon and dealing with customers.
“Now Georgia is always doing blow-drys, and colouring, and she is starting to learn cutting.”
Georgia, who like Chloe lives in Stowmarket, started at the college in September on a three year course that will lead to a Level 3 qualification.
She also began as a Saturday girl. “I’ve been working for Chloe for just over a year and it’s really, really good,” she said.
“Going to the college is really helpful too. There are a lot of things you have to learn, and by going there and working as well you learn in two different ways.”
Matt Stone and Wes Moore both did apprenticeships and studied at West Suffolk College.
Now the duo, who have worked together for 15 years, run Moore and Stone Carpentry and Building and employ 26 people plus sub-contractors.
A top priority for their Bury-based firm is giving others the same chances they had when they were starting out.
They currently have four apprentices, one in joinery, two in on-site carpentry and one in plumbing.
Their first was carpenter Reed Bailey who they took on in 2005. He still works for them.
When Matt and Wes go to the college to discuss apprentices’ progress they meet the same lecturers who taught them years ago.
And they are full of praise for the standard of teaching.
“The teachers there have loads of energy and work very hard to engage with the apprentices,” Matt says.
Youngsters taken on by Moore and Stone don’t get an easy ride.
“We’re quite intensive with them – it’s important we don’t end up having to babysit.
“They go straight into the job they are meant to be doing.
“We have had quite a few who have won awards over the last 10 years.
“Our time is not just spent training for the job, but also teaching them how to relate to customers.
“You need social skills, and to know how to speak to people, to become a good tradesman.
“When Wes and I started working together I did my apprenticeship by going to college two evenings a week,” he added.
Jacob Purvis, 17, is Moore and Stone’s joinery apprentice and trains one day a week in the carpentry workshop of the college’s Milburn Centre.
It’s a hive of activity filled with the smell of wood, constant hammering, and the whine of power tools.
“It’s challenging work here, but I definitely learn from my mistakes which is the best way to do it,” said Jacob.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with wood. I used to help my grandad who’s really good at carving.
“When I left school it was a choice between being a chef, and carpentry.
“But I thought, when hard times come people still need doors hanging, but they might not eat out so much.
“I’m getting more responsibility at work now. I’ve just started making a kitchen worktop.”
For horse racing fan Chloe Connell being offered an apprenticeship at the British Racing School in Newmarket was a dream come true.
It meant she could work at the heart of the sport she loves while she studied business adminstration.
And her job there involves helping others at the very start of their careers into apprenticeships in the racing industry.
“I was looking for an apprenticeship after my A levels, and saw the British Racing School job advertised at West Suffolk College,” she said.
“I didn’t have to go into the college for classes, they assessed me here once a month to check on my progress.”
She is now a recruitment co-ordinator at the prestigous school which runs courses for jockeys, plus racehorse training and care, and management roles.
It offers pre-apprenticeship courses which help young people get taken on by stables across the country.
“I was a training office assistant when I started but got promoted while I was still an apprentice,” said Chloe, 19.
“I’m really enjoying my job. I love it.
“The yard is a minute’s walk from the main building and the gallops are on site.
“I spend a lot of time out there, going to see how the students are doing.
“Sometimes I get to ride the horses here, with one of the yard instructors, which is great.”
Chloe, who grew up in Bury and went to King Edward VI School, added: “I’ve always been into racing.
“My partner Harry and I go to pretty much all the race meetings in Newmarket.”
George Button is training to be a pharmacy technician at the West Suffolk Hospital in Bury.
He is more than halfway through his two year apprenticeship, working as part of an 80-strong team.
“I was coming to the end of my A levels, and didn’t really know what to do, but knew I didn’t want to go to university,” said George, 21, who lives in Ixworth.
“I felt that could mean getting a qualification in one thing, but not necessarily being able to get a job at the end of it.
“I wanted to be on a career path, to get experience and earn money.
“I didn’t like the idea of living on the breadline for years as a student, with uncertainty of what would happen when I’d finished.”
George’s mum, Tracy, is a sister in the coronary care unit at West Suffolk Hospital so he grew up with ideas of a possible career in medicine.
“It was my mum who suggested pharmacy. It sounded very interesting and ideal for me.
“Now I’m working as part of the pharmacy team doing quite a wide range of things including assembling and checking prescriptions.”
At the end of his apprenticeship he will be looking to register as a pharmacy technician.
“You can get further qualifications and go on to work in all kinds of different areas including research and medicine production,” he said.
n Apprentices are an asset: Business, see Page 21