Apprenticeships in the pharmaceutical industry

Apprenticeships: an alternative way to train a new generation of workers with industrial training and accompanying study.


Apprenticeships are a practical way to gain skills in a real-world industry setting while also pursuing qualifications. Apprenticeships have equivalent educational levels from entry level to masters level, take 1-5 years to complete depending on their level, and are available through pharmaceutical companies in many scientific and non-scientific roles.

An increase of 33% in apprenticeships since 2019.

Biggest increase seen in people pursuing higher apprenticeship qualifications equivalent to bachelors and masters degrees.

Most popular areas are R&D, manufacturing, IT & administration.

Apprenticeship numbers and duration

The 2022 Industry-Academic links survey captured 825 apprenticeships across 10 pharmaceutical companies. This is a significant increase in the total number of apprenticeships captured by the survey - an increase of 32.9% compared to 2019, as well as a 287.5% increase compared to 2015 (Fig 1).

The duration of apprenticeships is spread evenly between <2, 2, 3, and 4 years depending on the level of the apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are also often catered to the individual which reflects their duration (Fig 1).

Apprenticeship Duration

Figure 1. Number and duration of apprenticeships in the pharmaceutical industry. 2022 data are compiled from 14 survey respondents including nil returns. Refer to previous iterations for more information on previous years.

Rise in apprenticeships

The number of apprenticeships is at an all-time high.

The number of apprenticeships has increased by 33% compared to 2019 survey data.

Apprenticeship levels

Apprenticeships are divided into various levels depending on the equivalent educational qualification. They range from level 2 to level 7 as follows:

  • Level 2 - entry/intermediate level apprenticeship which is the equivalent of GCSE level qualification.
  • Level 3 - advanced level apprenticeship which is the equivalent of A level qualification.
  • Level 4 and 5 - higher level apprenticeships which are the equivalent to foundation degrees.
  • Level 6 - also called degree apprenticeship, which is the equivalent of bachelor’s degree with honours.
  • Level 7 -  the equivalent of a masters degree qualification.

This year's survey data captured an increase in people pursuing higher apprenticeship qualifications, especially level 6 and 7. Of the 825 apprenticeships captured in this year's survey, 1.1% were level 2, 21.5% were level 3, 15.4% were level 4, 10.9% were level 5, 37.3% were level 6, and 13.8% were level 7 (Fig 2).

Increase in people pursuing higher apprenticeship qualifications

Level 6 and level 7 apprenticeships are equivalent to a bachelors and masters degree, respectively.

Apprenticeships by Level

Figure 2. Apprenticeships in pharmaceutical industry by level. 2022 data are compiled from 14 survey respondents including nil returns. Refer to previous iterations for more information on previous years.

Apprenticeship level by business area

Apprenticeships through the pharmaceutical industry support the training of people in both scientific and non-scientific roles. The roles are diverse across multiple different areas with the most popular areas being R&D, Manufacturing, IT, and Administration (Table 1, Fig 3).



Most popular business area

% of all areas in that level

2 R&D 89
3 Manufacturing 40.7
4 IT 37
5 R&D 67.8
6 R&D 45.8
7 Administration 33.3

Table 1. Most popular business area for apprenticeships by level. 2022 data are compiled from 14 survey respondents including nil returns.

Apprenticeship level by area

Figure 3. Apprenticeship level by business area. 2022 data are compiled from 14 survey respondents including nil returns. 

Diverse roles across levels

The most popular business area for apprenticeships is research and development (R&D).

Case study: Apprenticeships with UCB

Hi, my name is Jimmy Hunt and I'm an HR apprentice at UCB.

The reason I chose to work in this industry is because I wanted to work somewhere where I really felt like I can make a difference. Although my role is not really a lab based role, I feel like by providing support and providing assistance to our scientists, I'm really helping to transform patients lives across the world.

So there's two different aspects to my apprenticeship the part where I can learn and the part where I can earn as well.

So there'd be days like now where I am in the office I'm gaining valuable workplace experience. I'm learning from my colleagues, and just getting a general idea of what my role consists of. Other days, I'll be home, I'll be attending my webinars, I'll be making notes and I will be preparing for my assessments to get the best grade I can in my level five qualification.

I heard about the apprenticeship on the website. There's a fantastic section about apprenticeships, where you can filter by apprenticeship type, the industry type, there's lots of different filters.

When I originally saw the role, I was a bit apprehensive as I saw it was a scientific organisation and my science was not strong. However, when I saw that I could really make a difference and I could really contribute to helping people around the world, it was a no brainer for me.

I think the COVID 19 pandemic has impacted all of us. With my apprenticeship my lessons are still online, but I do not feel this hinders me in any way. I do not feel like I'm missing out on anything by not being in the classroom. For starters, all of the tools I need are available online. The PowerPoint presentations are online, every everything I could need I can access and although you miss that face to face function, I do not feel like you miss that much by being virtual.

So I want to get the best possible grade I can in my level five course and moving on from that because I've now found out how much I enjoy HR and how much I want to pursue a career in HR. I really want to work towards getting my level seven qualification as well.

Jimmy Hunt, HR apprentice at UCB, tells us about his experience and opportunities this apprenticeship offers.

When I originally saw the role, I was a bit apprehensive as I saw it was a scientific organisation and my science was not strong. However, when I saw that I could really make a difference and I could really contribute to helping people around the world, it was a no brainer for me. - Jimmy Hunt, Level 5 HR apprentice at UCB

Case study: Apprenticeships with AstraZeneca

So when I chose my apprenticeship, I weighed my options as I had an interest within project management and the choice of different industries within pharmaceuticals, hospitality and it. Ultimately I chose an apprenticeship at AstraZeneca as I wanted to be part of an organisation that makes a difference to the world by helping patients. After looking at a few different pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca's views were most aligned with my own and it made the most sense to come work here.

My apprenticeship is within Supply Chain Management within the clinical supply chain within biopharmaceutical development. I'm currently coming towards the end of my third year and working on my final year dissertation. So the role involves all aspects of clinical trial management and this involves drug manufacturing, packaging, labour and distribution, finance sourcing, and the use of IT systems for modelling so a lot of range of skills and in the role has given me opportunity to experience real life problems which can be discussed within my academic work.

So apprenticeships were not openly advertised in my school as they are now. So before I actually applied to the apprenticeship I had the attention of going to university. However, I took some time to really look at my options after results day as I did not get into my top choice and I had already started building a preference towards an apprenticeship. I found the AZ's at apprenticeship posted on the government website and immediately applied as I saw, it was a great opportunity even though it was almost three hours away from my hometown. Since then, I've loved it. I'm happy so I believe and I'm really happy that they're more than the advertised as honestly it's such a great scheme.

So the COVID-19 pandemic was a drastic change to my way of working as it was for many others. In my personal experience, the way of working was a big step up. I switched from training in person ,after only being in the company for six months, to essentially having to meet over calls, adapting the way I've worked, my workload was completed and just training without that kind of extra support you'd be given if you were in the office. So in LCS dispatching function I work in it was all hands on deck and if you were not supporting a vaccine study, you're supporting your buddy team, ensuring all the workload was spread out evenly and that all functions of the supply chain were running as usual.

So after my apprenticeship, the plan is to gain some further experience at AstraZeneca, learning about processes, about my current team and the pharmaceutical industry as a whole and being able to apply sustainable working practices. This is an area of focus within my dissertation and has also led me to an interest of completing an MBA post graduation.

Hans Sewpersadsing-Chetty tells us about his experience as a Supply Chain Apprentice at AstraZeneca and the opportunities this apprenticeship offers.

My career path is very different than the traditional apprentice. After graduating from school I decided I wanted to study Russian and international relations. I really enjoyed it at university so continued to study and did a master's degree at the University of Birmingham in Russian and Eastern European Studies. I struggled to find a job after doing the master's degree and ended up working in marketing. And I was working in marketing for a different pharmaceutical company. When I discovered my passion for the sciences. I found that I would much rather read the clinical studies behind our products and write the brand strategies for them. So I decided to change my career. I knew that I wanted to work in the sciences. And science is so dynamic and allows one to continuously learn and progress. But I had a challenge that I had to pay off the debt from my previous degrees. So I could not go back to university in the traditional manner. I Googled "science jobs in Cambridge" and found the apprenticeship at AstraZeneca. It presented the perfect opportunity for me because I would gain a degree in science completely debt free. And I'd also get the industry experience required to get a job after studying. And I have to admit that I was a bit worried that I would find lab work boring, or repetitive. We all have the stereotypes of lab scientists standing in their white coats, pipetting samples from you know one place to another. However, I have found that, you know, when I started to work in the lab, scientists are some of the most creative and innovative people you'll ever meet. Creativity is required for problem solving and this makes the role just incredibly engaging.

So the best thing about my job is that no two days are the same. I generally spend about half of my time in the lab. But this is time spent doing different experiments. They're bespoke, and they're designed to answer specific questions. And in doing these experiments, you know, I get to I get to learn new skills, and also work with different team members. It means that my job is really dynamic, and that I enjoy coming into the office every day.

Well, I was so passionate about working in science that I just Googled "science jobs in Cambridge", and frankly, would have accepted anything that got me closer to my goal. I'm so thankful that one of the first things that I clicked on, was the apprenticeship opportunity at AstraZeneca. Hands down applying is one of the best decisions that have ever made.

So when the pandemic hit the UK, I signed up to volunteer at the Cambridge COVID-19 testing centre that was set up in collaboration with AstraZeneca, GSK and the University of Cambridge. And I was terrified going in as I had to learn, you know, completely new experimental techniques and a different way of working. In my usual role I conduct bespoke experiments, or assays, and they're designed to answer specific questions. Whereas in contrast, the testing centre was a high throughput laboratory, where we followed specific standard operating procedures or SOPs. I also learned to work with robotics and automation, which was really cool. And in addition, you know, I had to change my working hours from the typical nine to five Monday to Friday to 3pm till 11:30pm, Saturday to Monday, and I was worried before starting my shifts that I would struggle with the hours, but the camaraderie and the enthusiasm that my teammates had for the work and you know, just frankly helping in any way that we could make the shifts a breeze.

So my future career goals. I love what I do, and I love where I work. And so being able to continuously learn and develop while helping to, you know, ultimately save patients is just it's wonderful and incredibly rewarding. And I plan to continue working in my department and continue to learn as much as I as I possibly can.

Paige Orwig tells us about her experience as an Oncology Apprentice at AstraZeneca and the opportunities this apprenticeship offers.

Become an apprentice

For more information about apprenticeships with the pharmaceutical industry including answers to questions such as:

  • What can I study?
  • Will I get a qualification?
  • Will I be paid?

As well as guidance on finding an apprenticeship and how to go about applying.

Read our detailed guidance on apprenticeships.

Last modified: 23 May 2024

Last reviewed: 23 May 2024