Early talent streams – professional apprentice or graduate?

So you’re considering hiring Professional Apprentices at 18, in addition to graduates at 21. What do those 3 years of independent study bring to graduates? What do 18 year olds potentially do better?
Published 18th October 2019 To fully understand the difference between Professional Apprentices and Graduates, you need to understand the psychology of adolescence, as young people go through three development stages.

Stage 1 – DEPENDENCE
Your mum makes sure you get up, tidies up after you, makes your meals and does your washing, and generally ensures you don’t make any mistakes.

Stage 2 – INDEPENDENCE
University requires you to move to a strange place, and find friends among completely new people. You have no history, and you’re free to experiment. Mostly, you can steer clear of those you don’t like. The results you get depend very largely on yourself. No one criticises your decision to stay up late or get drunk, this just has consequences – pleasant or unpleasant – which might change your behaviour. You are in control.

Stage 3 – INTERDEPENDENCE
Here you are working to achieve bigger goals, and need to work effectively with a range of other people to achieve results, regardless of whether you like them or not. Followership, adaptability, social behaviours and ultimately leadership become very important.

If you ever wondered why graduates can be touchy about feedback – it’s because they are coming from the Independent perspective. When you tell them they need to shape up, because they made a poor impression on the Director – they don’t see it as valuable advice on how to be interdependent. They see you as their mum, criticising them for slouching and looking out of the window!

What are the big differences between Apprentices and Graduates?

1. Independent viewpoint
Graduates have 3 years experience of independent living. This makes them more resistance to doing what they are told, more likely to challenge assumptions and authority, more willing to back their own ideas, and more likely to think outside the box. Moving location or company for career advancement may not be a big deal – been there, done that. Apprentices however can go straight from dependence to interdependence. They are likely to be more loyal, and less likely to seek opportunities in other locations or companies. They may be quicker to pick up on politics, but less likely to engage in direct challenge. As a group they will rely on acquired expertise rather than original thinking when solving problems. They will be happier to progress steadily rather than seeking career leaps, and are therefore likely to stay longer and be more amenable about how their career progresses.

2. Attitude to risk
Graduates may at 18 have made a £50K bet that investing in a degree will yield big long-term dividends in advancing their career. Certainly this is true of people who have taken a student loan to finance their degree. This indicates a willingness to think long-term, take big decisions, and invest money now for future gain. This confident decision-making may well create potential for big roles in the future. However, it may also mean that they have unrealistic expectations about early progression, are less likely to wait patiently for the right career opportunity to emerge, and are more likely to jump ship if the competition is offering them more money. The Professional Apprentice, however, may be more cautious, as they’ve focused on the low cost solution, often staying at home and working locally where they have maximum family support. This suggests that they may be good at safe tactical decisions where there is a lot of evidence, but less confident in making risky strategic ones where there is more ambiguity. It’s interesting to note that in terms of promoting social mobility, providing a Professional Apprenticeship may not, in the end, be as transformative as a grant or bursary that allows someone from a non-traditional background to experience 3 years of independent living at university.

Simon Fletcher from Amey comments, “Professional Apprentices can be seen as a longer-term investment compared to Graduates. Professional Apprentices are happy to stay and focus on turning in solid professional consultancy work for our clients over a longer period, whereas Graduates may look for new challenges and therefore only stay for between 2-4 years. Also, Graduates tend to be more focused on immediate advancement and salary hikes. In hard cash, development costs for Apprentices can actually be more costly per head than for Graduates. But our data shows that Apprentices are likely to stay longer and yield greater return on investment over time.”

Do you develop both groups in the same way?


What you do when you come of age at 18 can shape your life. You are still flexible, finding your beliefs, attitudes and approach to life. Do you need to build in some risk and independence to your Apprentice programme? Can you get them travelling abroad or working for your suppliers or customers? Do you want a ‘local feel’ where your Apprentices have strong local ties, and live at home, or do you want people who’ll uproot themselves to move around your business locations?

With your graduates, are there differences between graduates who have paid for their own education, and those who had it paid for them by parents? If they are ambitious risk-takers who want to recoup their investment, they will be very sensitive to the chance to earn more by taking a position with another company. It is critical to give them internal career management skills that let them focus their energy on creating great career opportunities inside your business. You need career facts to convince them of how real careers progress, and you need to spell out the very real price ticket of jumping ship (our research into careers definitively proves the value of staying put – and why). Note that with graduates, career management and post-programme development is probably the single most critical action that will impact ROI. Do you equip them to take career leaps successfully?

Take Away
Professional Apprentices are not just an earlier, cheaper form of recruiting graduate calibre people. Each can play a key role in delivering talent for the business, but the development journeys and the output will be different.