After the first year, British Airways pays its apprentices £7.38 an hour.

Studying for free appeals to many who hope to progress their careers and, as universities raise the cost of tuition, getting paid to train sounds better than ever

Apprentices don’t pay a penny for their training and get paid while they learn, which means that, unlike university students, they have no debts to repay when they finish studying.

So if you become an apprentice, who pays for your courses? Skilled workers are of such importance to the economy that the government and employers fund them, helped by the apprenticeship levy – a tax on large employers who pay 0.5% of their pay bill if it is over £3m a year into a central training fund.

Each apprenticeship comes with a price tag – an agreed maximum amount that can be claimed from the fund for the education and training part of it, depending on how long it takes and the level of skill involved. A business administrator apprenticeship, for example, lasts 18 months and comes with £5,000 towards training costs. A three-year apprenticeship in event rigging attracts £9,000. There’s nothing to stop employers providing extra training on top, and some do.

Levy-paying companies can claim money back towards their training costs from the fund. Non-levy paying companies and organisations get most of it paid, but must contribute 10%, soon to fall to 5%.

None of this need worry apprentices, as it is all worked out before the jobs are advertised. As an apprentice, a fifth of your time will be spent on education, either at a college, university or training organisation. Some big firms even put on their own courses.

You won’t miss out in the pay packet, however, because employers must pay their apprentices for the time they spend in study. Minimum apprenticeship wages are fixed by the government. For the first year, it’s £3.70 an hour, going up to £3.90 in April. It rises in the second and subsequent years based on age – £4.20 (£4.35 in April) an hour for under 18s; £5.90 (£6.15 in April) for 18-20 year olds, and £7.38 (£7.70 from April) for 21- to 24-year-olds, and £7.83 (£8.21 from April) for those 25 and over.

Most young apprentices live with their families, and the money is enough for some independence and a social life, they say. Apprentice Jamie Clarke, 22, who is training to be a plasterer making ornate cornices and centrepieces, gets £300 a week in his third year as a fibrous plasterer apprentice with Thomas & Wilson.

“I live with my parents and I’m given £20 a week by the company towards travel expenses, which helps,” he says. He spends one day a week at West London College on both the practical and theoretical side of the craft. “If anyone is thinking of doing an apprenticeship, it’s the right thing to do because you are learning as well as getting paid, and that’s a big motivation. Plus, you don’t have any debts at the end of it,” he says.

In fact, some employers pay above the minimum rate, especially in high-cost areas such as London. Some help apprentices out with expenses, and companies such as the international logistics firm Kuehne + Nagel pay a bonus for each year successfully completed. After the first year, British Airways, for example, pays its apprentices £7.38 an hour, rising to £7.70 in April, regardless of their ages, with an additional rate for those who are 25 and over.

The pay needs to be competitive in order to attract good candidates, says David Warnes, the managing director who leads apprenticeships at West London College. “When we negotiate with employers, we ask them to think about the high cost of living in London and we encourage them to pay the London living wage of £10.55 an hour, though not all do,” he says. Of the 500 apprentices the college supports, nine out of 10 will be offered and accept full-time jobs with their employer.

International freight forwarding apprentice Jay Williams, 19, joined Kuehne + Nagel on a two-year apprenticeship when he was 18. “I didn’t want to leave home and have no money at university,” he says. “Kuehne + Nagel offered a starting salary above the national minimum wage and a great bonus after completing each year,” he adds. “I am currently living at home, therefore the money I earn from the apprenticeship programme is more than enough for me,” he says.