Meet the apprentices

Let’s chat with… an apprentice

Apprenticeships are a unique and vocational route into the heritage sector, from specialist historic environment standards, to heritage construction skills and even non-heritage standards applied in heritage organisations. Let’s explore how apprentices support the sector to plug skills gaps, build organisational capacity, and diversify the workplace…

Chris Patterson, Archaeological Field Technician at Albion Archaeology, was the first apprentice in the country to complete the Level 3 Archaeological Technician qualification in February 2023. It was developed through the Historic Environment Trailblazer, focusing on archaeological investigation, including survey, excavation, and post-excavation analysis skills.

So, what might a timeline for a level 3 apprentice look like?

Apprentices are required to spend 80% of their time working, and 20% of their time in off-the-job training. This encourages a blend of workplace training and ‘learning while you earn’, as well as teaching through a college or training provider.

For Chris, this balance supported his transition into archaeological work. Chris says:

“I really enjoyed the weekly college sessions where I learnt more about the history of England and archaeological theory and artefact identification.”

The programme runs for 12 to 18 months, at which point Chris moved into his end-point assessment. This included a professional discussion, supported by a portfolio of work, an on-site observation and an online test. The specific assessment methods may vary based between different apprenticeship standards, but they are designed to support the knowledge, skills and behaviours that apprentices develop during their course. For Chris, and other L3 Archaeological Technicians, the focus on onsite observation cements some of the key behaviours for long-term success in archaeological work. Chris says:

“Some days working on site can be tough, either the excavation is difficult, or the adverse weather makes things much harder. A key behaviour is being able to manage things when it gets difficult, and a good part of that is working with colleagues to help ease the work (such as when a site is flooded and you need to bail out features, better to do it together than alone!).”

CIfA Qualifications delivers the end-point assessment for the level 3 Archaeological Technician; currently, it’s the only organisation offering this vital service to the industry. Once qualified. apprentices might progress into careers, explore CIfA membership, and apply the skills they’ve built.

But let’s take a step back from assessment and look at what the training and learning deliver! Apprenticeships equip learners with a range of transferrable skills to best move through their career pathways, such as people skills and leadership. However, the specialist needs of the archaeological sector are also integrated into the knowledge, skills and behaviours of the Archaeological Technician standard. This puts apprentices in the best place to understand their roles, and provide employers with staff in the best place to support their businesses. Chris says:

“The most important skills that I have developed are not only the physical skills of excavation or identification of finds and features, but also interpretation and collaboration… Identifying the shape, size and function of the feature allows me to collaborate on the project as a whole which in turn is written into the final report once all investigation is complete. I've been able to go from working on one section at a time to working on whole areas/larger features and bringing my findings to the supervisor.”

Chris also highlights how the challenges he faced can sometimes be the best example of these in-practice archaeological skills. He says:

“I also wanted something that would challenge me, and going from the office to a field site was certainly that! Some of the challenges are not only around the physical nature of the job, but also in having to work in adverse weather, outside all day, but also with interpretation of features and finds. Sometimes a piece of pottery is just as important as the ditch it was found in.”

Apprentices support the archaeological and wider heritage sector in a variety of ways, not least by providing a unique and diverse insight into the workforce. We use the phrase ‘diversifying the sector’ a lot when discussing the benefits of apprenticeships. But what does that really mean?

As a ‘mature’ student- one not taking on the qualification straight out of school or university, but rather, as a career change, providing a breakout opportunity for people who want to get into archaeology. Chris says:

 “Apprenticeships are good for the heritage sector as it allows more opportunities for people from all backgrounds to join!

I worked in education for 10 years, both has a teacher and then within the SEN department of a local authority council before wanting to investigate doing something completely different. Whilst my background was in English (as teacher and my degree) I've always been interested in history but didn't think it was something I could break into after taking a different route in my career and education. The apprenticeship gave me that way into this career.”

Of course, diversity is not the only benefit. For the sector as a whole, vocational career pathways help to create resilience and plug staff shortages and skills gaps. But Chris says that the benefits are also clear to employers:

“I think the major benefit for my employer is being able to train me in the way they specifically want me to be trained, rather than coming to them with other experiences. I was also lucky enough to work with other archaeological companies to see their best practices so that helped with my training as well…I'd also say that employers should consider apprenticeships as a way to develop motivated and skilled workers.”

 Heritage apprenticeships have been created for the sector, by the sector, fostering staff development and leadership skills that can work for the greater good!

So, what’s next for Chris?

“Currently I am working on moving from an archaeological field technician into an assistant supervisor role, and then perhaps into a supervisor role full time. My employer has been great at continuing my development by having me work alongside supervisors with post excavation tasks in the office recently.”

CIfA Qualifications assesses three apprenticeships that are available to the heritage industry:

  • Level 3 Archaeological Technician
  • Level 4 Historic Environment Advice Assistant
  • Level 7 Archaeological Specialist

Any employers who are interested in benefiting from taking on an apprentice can contact CIfA Qualifications and they’ll put you in touch with the relevant training provider. Email: