Doing an apprenticeship: What young people think

By Josie Misko, Nhi Nguyen, John Saunders Research report 2 October 2007 ISBN 978 1 921170 27 0


The study looks at what factors encourage young people to pursue an apprenticeship. Information from students and courses indicates that the key drivers of apprenticeship uptake are intrinsic interest and academic ability. School students with higher academic ability are less interested in apprenticeships. In contrast, those who are part way through their apprenticeship are very positive about the experience, especially the enjoyment associated with learning new skills and future prospects for career progression and pay.


About the research

This study identifies the factors which explain why individuals enter or do not enter traditional trade apprenticeships.

  • Having an intrinsic interest in a trade is the main motivation for taking up or wanting to take up an apprenticeship. Improving the image of the trades among students, teachers and parents would promote a greater interest.
  • Most senior secondary school students claim not to be interested in doing an apprenticeship, with students of higher academic ability much less likely to be interested. Students of parents with university degrees were also less likely to be interested. Apprenticeship recruitment drives are likely to be more effective if they target those not planning to go on to higher education. Information should be made available to all students, since over one in three commencing apprentices have completed Year 12.
  • The current information and guidance available to school students is a potential barrier to greater interest in apprenticeships among young people. Apprenticeships were not widely promoted at school and specific information was not always easy to obtain. Relatively few students were encouraged by their teachers and counsellors to pursue an apprenticeship.
  • Many school students are not attracted to apprenticeships because they believe pay of tradespeople to be too low (by comparison with pay for professionals). In contrast, those part way through an apprenticeship believe the main barrier to continuing is the training wage, which is low relative to what they might earn elsewhere. It is likely that this is a contributing factor to uptake and perhaps to non-completion.
  • Those part way through an apprenticeship are very positive about the experience, pointing especially to the enjoyment and challenge obtained from working and learning new skills, and the foundation the apprenticeship provides for good job and pay prospects for the future. Promoting these positive experiences could improve interest in apprenticeships among school students.

Executive summary

In recent years skill shortages in the traditional trades have received a great deal of attention in the press and in government and industry forums. Some explanations for these shortages relate to the perceived decline in attractiveness of these jobs to students as career destinations and the negative perceptions students and their parents have about trade work by comparison with jobs requiring higher education qualifications. Government and industry bodies believe that increasing the number of apprentices will help to prevent further skill shortages in years to come, so it is appropriate to consider the ways in which young people are influenced when deciding on apprenticeship as a career.

This study is concerned with the factors which explain why individuals enter or do not enter traditional trade apprenticeships. More specifically, it aims to present evidence on what influences young people (both students contemplating career pathways and apprentices in training) in making decisions about their futures. This may help to inform career advisers, industry bodies and policy-makers on the merits of different approaches to promoting careers in the trades and the changes that may need to be made to workplace practice, remuneration and training to increase the attractiveness of the trades.

To help us better understand these factors, we obtained information from about 800 apprentices and close to 1600 students in Years 10, 11 and 12 in South Australia. We also held focus group discussions with about 80 students. All of these students came from four high schools in different parts of Adelaide and from one country high school.

Motivation and personal attributes

When apprentices were asked about what had motivated them to enter an apprenticeship, their key reason was having always wanted to do that type of work, followed by the view that with a trade I would always have a job. Contrary to popular opinion, however, they were not generally motivated to enter traditional trades because of an inability to get into other occupations or training programs. The great majority had chosen an apprenticeship as their first preference. Furthermore, whether it was their first, second or third preference, about 90% of apprentices planned to stay in the trade.

When students were asked what would influence them to enter an apprenticeship, they also most often mentioned always wanted to do that type of work, followed by opportunities for making good wages ( with a trade I can make good money) and getting secure and stable employment ( with a trade I can always get a job and a trade is a good base for other careers).

We also asked for the key disincentive to pursuing an apprenticeship. For apprentices it was inadequate pay, while for students it was never been keen on a trade.

There is substantial evidence confirming the considerable effect that cognitive ability and social and economic background have on educational attainment and career choice. Generally people with higher levels of cognitive ability will have higher levels of educational attainment, which enable them to move into pathways not typically associated with traditional trade apprenticeships. In this study students reporting high academic ability did not generally opt for apprenticeships. They were also more likely to be planning to obtain a TER¹ score. Nevertheless, well over a third of apprentices had completed Year 12 and about a fifth of these had obtained a Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER) score. Of these a handful had scored in the top decile.

It is generally the case that students of higher socioeconomic background choose to enter occupations more typically associated with university studies than the trades. Although this argument is supported by our study, the influence of socioeconomic background on student intentions to pursue an apprenticeship is modest.

Apprentices generally report high levels of job satisfaction, with the great majority prepared to recommend an apprenticeship to friends or relatives contemplating career choices. Opportunities for career establishment and progression, continuous and secure employment, and financial, educational, and other personal benefits are given as major reasons for making such a positive recommendation. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that we have not sought the views of those who have left apprenticeships. Curtain and Cully (2001) report that dissatisfaction with the job rather than the quality of the training was given as the main reason for those leaving contracts of training. Our study also found that inadequate pay, working conditions and arrangements for training were the major reasons for not recommending an apprenticeship to others.

Interpersonal and contextual factors

We were interested to explore the impact of interpersonal interactions on uptake of (or openness to) traditional trade apprenticeships. Students were asked about the extent to which career decisions were influenced by parents, peers, and teachers.

The great majority of students reported not having discussed apprenticeships with parents; nevertheless, 80% of those planning to pursue an apprenticeship had done so. Furthermore, where discussions had been held, students claim that their parents’ views did not influence their career decisions. Our analysis of the extent to which the social and economic background of parents influences openness to apprenticeships appears to bear this out. A Victorian study of parental influence on career decision-making has also found that, while parents want to be involved, they feel ill-equipped to help their children in career planning.

Students and teachers do not generally engage in discussions about the suitability of apprenticeships as career options. However, teachers are more likely to advise students of lower academic ability to consider it as an option.

Peers were generally reported to be non-committal about the career decisions of students and apprentices. However, students and apprentices did not place much weight on the views of peers when making their career decisions. Nevertheless, having friends already in or contemplating apprenticeships had a positive influence on apprenticeship uptake.

Bearing in mind that we surveyed students from schools in different locations, we were also interested to find out whether this would have an effect on openness to apprenticeships. Although we found little difference between students who attended metropolitan schools (representing rather different socioeconomic areas), country students were less likely to say no to an apprenticeship.


There are various implications we can draw from the findings of this study. First, a trade is not for everyone, especially high academic achievers. Second, students already in a school-based apprenticeship or traineeship are substantially more likely to consider moving into a traditional four-year trade apprenticeship once their schooling has been completed.

Such findings have implications for how apprenticeships are marketed to school students. Promotional campaigns or recruitment drives should concentrate primarily on students outside the high academic achieving group, including those in school-based apprenticeships. However, there is no harm in also providing high achievers with information about apprenticeships as a viable option should other plans not eventuate. Keeping in mind that an apprenticeship had been a second and third option for considerable numbers of apprentices in our study, such a strategy would make sense.

Having peers who are already in or considering taking up apprenticeships has also been found to explain apprenticeship uptake. Making sure that students have opportunities to mix with others who have already decided to enter a four-year apprenticeship or who are already in apprenticeships may be another productive marketing strategy.

There is also a group of students who have not considered apprenticeships because they have not been given enough information or sufficiently accurate information to make a decision. This should be addressed. Keeping in mind that the overwhelming majority of apprentices would recommend an apprenticeship to others, consideration might also be given to inviting such current apprentices to talk to students in career-information sessions.

Many apprentices and students perceive a financial disadvantage (especially in the early years of apprenticeship); recent initiatives to supplement the income of apprentices might redress this.

As many apprentice respondents had completed Year 12 (as their highest level of schooling), there is potential in promoting apprenticeships to students of all academic ability ranges. High achievers may consider apprenticeships if they have sufficient knowledge of the flexibility of articulation pathways between basic apprenticeship qualifications and advanced vocational education and training (VET) and higher education.

¹ TER (Tertiary Entrance Rank) or its equivalent in other states is a score used as a tool for selection to universities. Not all students who complete Year 12 in South Australia will opt to take examinations or assessments leading to a TER score. Some will just complete requirements for the South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE), which signals the completion of secondary education in South Australia.



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