• Views October 18, 2016

Go back just a few decades and life as a student or job seeker seemed much simpler; tuition fees were non-existent, jobs were plentiful and, as such, there was less competition.

In the present day, that’s no longer the case. Indeed, tuitions fees for courses starting in 2017 will cost students up to £9,250 in England and that’s not to mention the high competition for university placements.  The same is also apparent in the workplace, with hundreds of people often applying for the same vacancy.  With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that sixth form/high school graduates are unsure of which way to turn when it comes to getting their foot on the employment ladder.

Enter the apprenticeship, a debt-free way of obtaining a qualification and getting a job. Some might say that you’re killing two birds with one stone.  However, the question on many school-leavers minds is whether apprenticeships are a better alternative to studying for a university degree?  According to the Skills Funding Agency, an increasing number of school-leavers think so; it states that there has been an 83.3 percent increase in the number of under 19-year old’s starting on a higher apprenticeship, compared to the number in 2015.

Now you’re probably wondering what the difference is between studying for a degree at university and doing an apprenticeship. University is much like school where you would enrol onto a chosen course, attend lectures, and so on – all in exchange for a qualification at the end of the standard three years.  Whereas, an apprenticeship scheme often involves on-the-job training, as well as studying on the side for a qualification, usually in the form of a diploma. And the best part about it, the apprentice gets paid for their time.

Most recently we’ve seen a rapid uptake of apprenticeships, as well as the number of apprenticeship schemes, as seen in Figure 1.  According to the UK Government’s apprenticeship statistics, between 2009/10 and 2010/11, there was a huge leap in the number of apprenticeship starts in England.  Indeed, numbers increased by 63 percent from 279,700 to 457,200 – largely due to the increase in tuition fees. So, could the next proposed rise in tuition fees to £13,000 per year spark another jump? Only time will tell.

Figure 1.

One the other hand, why choose university? Well, there are some occupations that require a degree. For example, you might be looking at going into medicine, or perhaps you fancy a job in petrochemical engineering at BP, both of which would require a degree.  There are huge advantages to taking the university route; the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills revealed that, in 2015, working-age graduates would earn an average of £32,500 per year, compared with £22,000 for non-graduates. Research conducted by career website, Adzuna, also found that the difference between lifetime earnings of graduates and non-graduates might also be larger than previously thought – potentially as high as £500,000! And let’s not forget about the independence and social life that university brings; moving out and forming lifelong friendships. This university ‘culture’ is something that apprentices often miss out on.

While university sounds great, let’s remember that although you come out with a degree and are – reportedly – more likely to earn more money than an apprentice, there are some downsides.  Graduates can often carry higher debt and lack ‘on-hands’ experience, which can make finding a job a challenge. According to the Graduate Labour Market Statistics 2015, 2.3 percent of graduates are unemployed, while Figure 2 shows that 20.9 percent of graduates were in medium/low skilled jobs. While these figures are perhaps reflective of the current state of the UK jobs market, it could also indicate that graduates may not have ‘first dibs’ on a vacancy just because they have a degree.

Figure 2

With the government’s plan to reach three million apprenticeships by 2020, one thing is clear: apprenticeships are becoming an increasingly popular option for school-leavers. While there are fantastic apprenticeship schemes out there, it all depends on the individual, the type of apprenticeship and what one wants to do with their future. Being an apprentice myself, I know the difficult choice school-leavers face.  For me, the idea of having debt was the deciding factor and when I came across the PRCA’s Public Relations higher apprenticeship scheme, I saw a field that interested me and had plenty of opportunities for progression, while offering a Level 4 qualification. After weighing up my options, I opted for the apprenticeship and took my first step. Fifteen months later, I’m typing away at my desk in the Finn Partners London office and I haven’t looked back since.

Ultimately, the decision between university or an apprenticeship is personal and requires you to decide what you want from life. Both university and apprenticeships have their advantages and disadvantages, it’s just a question of what you want and how you plan to get it. It can feel terrifying, but, as it is said, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.