Bucks business reveals how an apprenticeship can land you a great job – and a degree

Going to university is seen as a necessary pathway to a fulfilling career, but these days students can rack up debts of £40,000 or more before they graduate.

There are alternatives where school leavers can work and study for a degree at the same time, and instead of building a mountain of debt, earn a competitive salary and the prospect of a rewarding career.

The healthcare and life science recruitment consultancy Zenopa, based in Penn near High Wycombe, is a great example of an employer that has fully embraced the benefits of taking on apprentices.

Over the past five years, Zenopa has employed a whopping 24 apprentices aged 18-21, with each being taken on for three and a half years whilst they study for a level six university degree. Disciplines include sales, marketing, finance, and central services.

Earning while you learn

This is not just glorified work experience with further education tacked onto it, as Central Services Executive, Max McGarvie, who is in the final year of his apprenticeship, explains.

“The apprentices don’t have to pay for their degree and will have a salary so the financial difference over a three year period compared to a conventional graduate is almost £120,000.

“Apprentices are given responsibility working with their own clients from day one. It provides commercial awareness – skills required to work in an office environment, interacting with people, getting to work on time. This is all very attractive to a future employer. You are almost three years ahead of the game.”

Three apprentices graduated last year with two staying in the business, benefiting from a ‘signing on’ bonus of 25 per cent of their base salary in their new contract.

Max adds: “After training an apprentice over that time they are very capable, and we would want them to stay on, but it is completely up to the individual.”

Making a meaningful contribution

There is no question of Max leaving Zenopa as he has really enjoyed the level of responsibility he has been given from day one in an HR-focused role where he has developed relationships, negotiated contracts, and worked with external suppliers.

“It’s also a great environment having lots of apprentices who are all in similar situations on a social and cultural level. It really breaks the divide between coming out of school and going into full-time work,” he says.

“I feel like my skill set has grown massively. The university side is much better as well as it’s structured around us as a company - it’s a lot more tailored and specialised.”

Apprenticeships a sensible business decision

Managing Director Mark Denton personally developed the employment model of recruiting 18-year-old school leaver degree apprentices with Zenopa, the only recruitment business in the UK to do it. He is also an Enterprise Adviser, volunteering time to help school and college careers leaders create and enhance employment opportunities in the local area.

At Zenopa, Mark has integrated degree apprentices into the core of the business model, with students mixing four days working at the company with one day spent at university typically studying for a business management or marketing degree from a range of providers including West London University, Henley Business School, Reading University and Cranfield University.

Significantly, of the 51 staff, 26 are apprentices who are seen as integral to leading the future international growth of the company. A total of 75 per cent of Zenopa’s new business development team is made up of apprentices and their research into industry clients and candidates has been used internally to improve services, while they continually help develop areas such as the use of technology and social media too.

The results have been impressive. One apprentice generated sales of £250,000 in a year and the business has just set up a team in the United States led by two apprentices.

Teaming up with a business ‘buddy’

Apprentices are recruited as 18-year-olds straight from as many local schools as possible thanks to exhibiting at careers events such as the Buckinghamshire Skills Show, (run by Bucks Skills Hub and Buckinghamshire Business First) although contact may have been made as early as age 15 through work experience.

Candidates from a disadvantaged background and / or whose family have never been to university are particularly encouraged to apply.

They are then integrated into the business via a buddy system using an existing apprentice with ongoing internal and external training backed by a £1,000 budget per apprentice on top of the cost of the university fees.

The apprenticeship scheme has helped Zenopa’s business reputation, with them being awarded 'Great Place to Work' four years in a row, while they won the Buckinghamshire Business Award for Apprentice and Young Person Employer of the Year in 2022, and were finalists in 2021 and 2023.

Apprentices genuinely benefit businesses

John Browning, Local Skills Improvement Manager at Buckinghamshire Business First, said: “Zenopa is a fantastic example of a progressive employer that really believes in the value of young people to its business.

“Zenopa is not just ‘ticking the box’ of taking on apprentices but is making them integral to its success, and is growing accordingly.

“I would encourage anyone looking to take on apprentices to get in touch with Buckinghamshire Business First and see how they can genuinely benefit your business.”

Want to learn more about hiring an apprentice?

Contact our Business Support Team to get more information. Call 01494 927130 or email: BusinessSupport@bbf.uk.com.