THE BLOG

Want to be an Apprentice? - Dress the Part, and Other Tips From the Hiring Front Line

09/08/2013 13:35 BST | Updated 08/10/2013 10:12 BST

Now all the cringing is over from another series of The Apprentice, time to look at just what makes a good candidate in the real world, that one not chasing viewing figures or a peer's £250,000 investment.

Apprenticeships are firmly back in fashion again, with 457,000 people starting them in the UK in 2010-11, a record and nearly double the 2008 number. It is easy to see why the trend has continued. But many more firms could be offering them and should be encouraged to do so.

The escalating cost of higher education, and the yawning gap between subjects learned and skills needed, means there has never been a better time to promote the idea more widely in business. The Government is keen, but more needs to be done to remove a residue of stigma that learning on the job is somehow inferior to learning about it (let alone about something completely different, not that I have anything against anyone wanting to be an accountant after studying classics).

Part of the stigma is the whiff of Dickensian exploitation, as if every job on offer through an apprenticeship is either inferior or just a modern variant of shoving children up chimneys to clean them (the chimneys).

There are certainly bad employers, but most of those offering apprenticeships will be taking their career structures seriously and keen to teach the skills they need. I have mentored many people within the accountancy profession, which is particularly open, and there are some rules any applicant should follow, in my view, to make the most before and during an apprenticeship.

The most basic of all is knowing something about the firm that might hire you. Ask questions, see if you can speak to past or present apprentices. Gather knowledge.

It is not all about the money either. Remembering that there is more to a job than salary and benefits will help you, the candidate, make the right choice. A key question to ask any potential employer is about the opportunities at the end of the training period.

Some apprentices also feel that their job is done just by being offered a place. Congratulations, of course. But failure to show enthusiasm, curiosity and seek new projects that may mean long hours are marks against a person.

Foreign language skill? Look for a way to use it in the firm you are applying to. Clothes are also important because first impressions count, particularly at the interview stage. The key is to dress for the role you want, not the one you have or the night you intend later. Yes, that does mean a sober suit for men and business clothes for woman.

Social polish is invaluable, so develop an ability to put people at ease and demonstrate that skill at interview. It is also crucial during an apprenticeship to ask for regular feedback on your work and, at the right time, an open reference.

The apprenticeship is a chance to embed in a firm, so use the time to get to know colleagues socially through after work events or sports.

We are all personal brands these days, so investing time in a Linkedin profile is vital. But if at the end of it all the choice of career seems wrong then be prepared to switch directions.

There are no certainties, but winning an apprenticeship for most people is not about the jaw-dropping business idea or the brash and swagger needed to get on TV to impress Lord Sugar, it is about careful thought and a bucketful of commitment.