Apprenticeships vs Traineeships – What’s the difference?

Across Northern Ireland, there is an increasing number of pathways into leading and expanding industries such as the tech sector. Gone are the days where University degrees were the only viable way of upskilling with new entrants increasingly choosing alternative routes in order to get educated and gain experience. Apprenticeships and Traineeships are at the forefront of this movement as research shows that in 2021 Higher Level Apprenticeship applications increased by 19.8% to 98,800, compared to 82,500 in the same period last year. 

These numbers are not surprising. Apprenticeships and Traineeships offer opportunities which are commonly missing in more traditional forms of education. Both enable participants to gain real professional experience, work with fellow industry professionals, and get a true feel for the practical working systems of their chosen trade. Apprenticeships and Traineeships are a fantastic opportunity to open doors that may have previously been reserved for people already in the field. Many find that through getting the opportunity to gain real industry experience, and make connections with other people in the field, a multitude of future job opportunities can arise. 

As much as Apprenticeships and Traineeships have many similarities, they are different. Therefore if you are looking for ways to upskill particularly in I.T related subjects, make sure you are able to distinguish the core differences before committing to an Apprenticeship or Traineeship programme. 


Apprenticeships – What are they?

Apprenticeships combine work and study by mixing on the job training with classroom learning. Depending on what type of apprenticeship you decide to do, you will most often find that you will be employed in a company on a full time basis with one day per week designated to attend College in order to cover further theory, and work towards your final qualification. 

Many Apprentices are offered jobs at the companies where they originally trained, meaning post completion of their qualification they are free to progress within the company.


The Levels of Apprenticeships 

There are currently three levels of apprenticeships offered as part of the Apprenticeships NI programme:

  • Level 2 Apprenticeships 
  • Level 3 Apprenticeships 
  • Higher Level Apprenticeships (typically Level 5/6)

Each Apprenticeship differs in length, and is equivalent to a different level of education. For example, Level 2 Apprenticeships provide you with a Level 2 Diploma upon completion which is equivalent to 5 GCSEs. Level 3 Apprenticeships on the other hand are considered to be the equivalent to A-Levels. Anything above that, such as Level 4 (HNC), Level 5 (HND) are considered to be Higher Level Apprenticeships, often requiring you to have already completed GCSEs or A-Levels.. 

The minimum age requirement for commencing Level 2 & Level 3 Apprenticeships is 16. Many teenagers now choose Apprenticeships instead of A-Levels to earn while they learn, and to get an early start on their careers as well as start gaining valuable experience in a field of their choice. Another reason why Apprenticeships are a fantastic option for those who may not need to go to University to progress in their field of choice is that you are given an opportunity to try and see whether you really like the job before investing in further education. 

Higher-Level Apprenticeships often require you to have already completed a Level 3 qualification or above meaning they are more appropriate for people over the age of 18. 


Traineeships – What are they?

What distinguishes Traineeships from Apprenticeships is that they are usually unpaid and significantly shorter than apprenticeships. The average duration of a Traineeship can be anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of years, and as much as they don’t offer a set salary or wage, they provide essential on the job experience and are often considered to be a ‘preparation for the working world’. They are perfect for school leavers who may be struggling to find paid opportunities within their field of choice but are still eager to get experience to improve their career prospects. 

The conditions and entry requirements of each Traineeship programme are highly individual, and vary depending on whether they have been organised ‘in-house’ by an industry leading organisation, or whether it’s a  government traineeship programme. When looking for Traineeship opportunities you may find local companies which may offer programmes to help you get some work experience, get used to being in a professional environment and try the job for yourself to help you decide whether it is something you would like to invest in further. 

A government Traineeship programme on the other hand, which has been organised in partnership with one of the six regional colleges across Northern Ireland, offers work-based learning across a variety of industries, as well as provides individuals with a full Level 2 qualification whilst delivering  the following key elements:

  • An industry qualification in the chosen occupational area
  • Vocational skills development
  • Transferrable and digital skills
  • Work placement
  • A Traineeship certificate plus qualifications equivalent to 5 GCSEs including Maths and English Grades A* to C

The government Traineeship programme typically takes up to two years to complete on a full time basis, with a one year fast track option available from September 2022. To apply for the fast track option you must hold a minimum Level 1 qualification defined as four GCSEs at grades D to G including Maths and English at grades D to E or equivalent. 


So… What’s better? An Apprenticeship or Traineeship?

The answer to this question is highly individual, as the ‘better’ option is dependent on your specific requirements. However, we can summarise that Traineeships may be more suitable for young people who are looking for basic experience within a professional environment to improve their employability and to find out whether their chosen career path is something they wish to pursue further. 

Completing a short-term, independent traineeship at a company can give you fantastic insight into the industry, and help you develop professional connections which might open up further opportunities in the future. A government Traineeship programme organised in partnership with local Colleges, would be longer in terms of duration but also provide you with full relevant Level 2 qualification which can be used as a starting point to apply for a Level 3 course or Apprenticeship in the future. 

If you already have A-level or Level 3 qualifications under your belt, and are ready to enter the working world full time, you may find that a Higher-Level Apprenticeship may be more appropriate for you. A Higher-Level Apprenticeship will help you gain experience and skills within your field of choice, a recognised qualification, with the added bonus of paying you a full time salary. 

Want to find out more about apprenticeships across Northern Ireland? Check out some of our useful resources:

What’s better: An I.T Degree or Apprenticeship?

Everything you need to know about apprenticeships in Northern Ireland 

How to get a career in I.T with no University Degree