Apprenticeship versus Degree: the pros and cons

16 August 2016 | Focus | Guest Author

Leaving school is an exciting time, but the decisions you make at this point will have a massive impact on your future. With so many options, how you do you know which one is right for you? The main two choices that school leavers have is to do an apprenticeship or study for a degree. Each has its pros and cons, so it’s important to be informed before you make that all-important decision.

What is an apprenticeship?

Apprenticeship schemes seem to offer the best of both worlds. Apprenticeships are a real job, so you’ll be paid a salary (some employers pay the national minimum apprenticeship wage, but others pay more). On top of this, however, you’ll also be working towards a qualification. An apprenticeship scheme allows you to start at an entry level and work your way up to qualifications that are equal to having two A-Levels (Advanced Apprenticeship) up to a degree. How much time you spend at college will depend on your apprenticeship and your employer, though you can expect to spend at least one day a week at college, and the rest working for your employer.

What are the pros?

One of the main reasons school leavers are hesitant about doing a degree is because of how much it will cost them. With an apprenticeship, if you meet the entry requirements, you won’t have to pay a penny - and because you’ll be working for a real employer, you’ll even earn money. For further reading on going straight into a paid job, you can read our guide.

1. Earn work experience

An apprenticeship is a great way to earn work experience. Even though a degree is incredibly valuable, it can be difficult for graduates to find a job (especially if they lack any work experience of their own). With an apprenticeship, once you’ve qualified you’ll have experience and a qualification under your belt, so you could choose to progress your career elsewhere. In some industries, especially construction, experience counts for more than a degree, which means that if you’re adamant about working in a specific industry, an apprenticeship could be perfect for you.

2. Support from colleagues

The benefit of working for an employer is that there is always someone on hand to give you support and advice. As an apprentice, you’ll be given your own coach to teach you your responsibilities and help out with your college assignments. One of the best benefits is that this will be a person with years of experience in their field, so you’ll be learning from the best.

3. Good prospects

If you complete an apprenticeship and decide to stay with your current employer, your dedication and hard work could earn you a promotion. You’ll have been with them for a number of years, depending on the duration of your apprenticeship. This means you might be given the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities. If you decide to go elsewhere, your industry experience, plus a relevant qualification, could set you apart from other candidates. If you choose, you could also progress to a degree in a relevant field in your industry.

What are the cons?

Despite the benefits, there are some disadvantages of choosing an apprenticeship over a degree.

1. Limited direction

Apprenticeships are often vocational, meaning the courses on offer are often trades or something that requires a lot of dedication. Having dedication for your apprenticeship is crucial; if you ever decide that you don’t want to pursue a career in that industry, you’ll have limited qualifications to show employers and won’t necessarily be able to complete another apprenticeship.

2. Funding requirements

Apprenticeships are funded by the government, meaning applicants need to meet a specific criteria.

Typically, apprenticeships are only on offer to those aged 16-24, living in England and not in full-time education. However, there may be additional restrictions, such as for those who already have A-Levels but decide they want to pursue a vocation. This means that your ideal employer won’t receive government funding for employing you as an apprentice, so they may opt for another candidate.

What is a degree?

An undergraduate degree is a level 6 higher education certificate. Degrees are still widely valued by employers and if you want to go into teaching or law, an academic degree is a prerequisite (in addition to a postgraduate certificate).

What are the pros?

Despite the recent sentiment that degrees are a waste of time and money, there are many advantages to possessing one.

1. Developing transferable skills

Degrees show employers that you have a wide range of skills, including communication, teamwork (in the case of group presentations) and the ability to learn and work independently. You can develop these skills in school, but at university level it is much more intense. While this is something you will need to prepare for, it’s a huge achievement knowing - and being able to prove - that you’re up to the challenge. Having these skills will also make it much easier for you to change career later in life if you choose. When you’ve spent your whole working life in one career and don’t have any other relevant qualifications, it can be very difficult for you to change direction. With a degree, this is less of an issue.

2. Increased earning power

Research by the Institute for Employment Research has found that graduates earn more than non-graduates and are more likely to enjoy high-level careers and promotion prospects thanks to the skills they’ve acquired at university.

3. Extracurricular activities

Degrees also give you multiple opportunities to get involved with extracurricular events. You could join a society, which demonstrates to employers that you have ambition and organisational and social skills. You may even have the chance to undertake work experience (in fact, many universities make this a mandatory part of study).

4. Student loans

One of the key fears of many considering doing a degree is that they won’t be able to afford it. However, Student Loans Company offers tuition fee loans, paid directly to the university, to fund your course. In addition to this, you can also have a maintenance loan for you to use on accommodation and university supplies. You will only have to pay back your student loan when your income is over £21,000 a year. This will be taken by your employer on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in a similar way to income tax contributions. Depending on your circumstances, you may also be eligible for a maintenance grant (to cover living expenses) which is non-repayable.

What are the cons?

Even with a degree, a job is not guaranteed upon graduation. This can leave some graduates feeling that their degree wasn’t worth it.

1. Competition from other candidates

One of the key disadvantages is that in the three years you’ve been studying, others, who may very well be competing with you for a job in the future, will have been earning work experience. To make yourself stand out further from other candidates, it’s beneficial to try and earn some work experience while studying, whether it’s a part-time job, choosing a work experience module, or working during the summer (by doing an internship, for example).

2. Lack of direction

Many students enrol on a degree course because they have no idea what career they want to pursue. While a degree can teach you transferable skills, if you graduate with no idea of what you want to do, you may have to do some additional soul-searching. The downside? You may find you want to pursue a career that doesn’t even require you to have a degree, or where it doesn’t allow you to put into practice what you’ve learned.

If you’re not sure what to do when it comes to leaving school, consider doing some work experience or voluntary work in areas that interest you. The other alternative is to have a productive gap year filled with travel – which can help your career prospects in the future . You’ll be able to use it on your CV for life (which could make the difference between getting a job or not) and it will give you a taste of what work in a particular role is like.

3. The danger of being overqualified

In today’s job climate, graduates may not be able to find work in their field. This could lead to them getting an entry-level, low-paying job. Some employers may be hesitant to employ overqualified graduates for fear that they will leave once they can secure a different position.

Whether you opt for an apprenticeship or a degree, it’s a big step. Both will grant you independence and act as a new and pivotal chapter of your adult life. It’s a decision that requires plenty of consideration and discussion but, ultimately, only you can make the right one.


Author Bio: Raj Mistry is a partner at Top Suffolk Jobs, a niche jobs board. They deliver Suffolk jobs direct to the inboxes of job-seekers to help them find employment. Having worked in the corporate world for over 30 years, he was involved in recruiting people both internally and externally. This brought challenges of finding out how individuals learn, identifying their strengths and developing their potential. After leaving the corporate world in 2014 he set up his own business managing property which he runs with his wife and has recently set up an internet marketing company.

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