University v Apprenticeships: What’s the best route to employment success?

Everyone has had it tough over the last couple of years, but 16-18 year olds have found their entire future thrown up in the air by Covid 19. Do they go to university and risk being cut off from family by lockdown measures? If they go will they have the full university experience, or will they end up stuck in a room alone staring at a screen? And when they graduate, post-pandemic and post-Brexit how will the jobs market look? Would they be better just to get onto the career ladder now via an apprenticeship? How will that affect their earning potential over time?

The choice between studying for a degree and taking an apprenticeship route into employment has never been more difficult, thanks both to the pandemic and Brexit, but also to the fact that some apprenticeships are now rightly considered to be equal in status to university study.  In 2019/20 271,890 people started apprenticeships and a quarter of these were Level 6 and 7 study, which is the equivalent of an undergraduate degree or masters respectively. In all but a small number of fields, it is no longer the case that you have to attend university in order to gain entry or progress in your career.

Young people may choose a university route if it is the accepted preparation for the field in which they want to work – for example law, medicine or teaching – or conversely if they are not sure which career path they want to take. A university experience – especially one away from home – can give students a safe environment in which they can mature and learn to look after themselves, while making friends and figuring out what they want to do with the rest of their lives! They will have access to ‘graduate schemes’ with the top firms in every field (although these are highly competitive) and will have lots of opportunities to develop soft skills, which employers value, through getting involved in wider university activities.

An apprenticeship might be a sensible route for young people who already know what career path they want to take, and that it does not require university qualifications, or that the required qualifications can be accessed through a degree apprenticeship route. You might be surprised to learn that accountancy is one respected profession where an apprenticeship route is becoming the norm, and we have trained a number of accountancy apprentices over the years here at E R Grove. An apprenticeship route has the advantage of paying you, rather than costing you, money which for many young people is a significant consideration.

But what about potential earnings? Surely a graduate will earn more than someone without a degree? You might be surprised to learn that a study by The Sutton Trust found that apprentices could expect to earn £52,000 more over their lifetime than graduates from non-Russell Group universities! You will however be less surprised to learn that graduates from top Russell Group universities will earn £100,000 more than apprentices over the course of their lifetime. What this tells us is that having ‘any degree’ is emphatically not better than having no degree! If you haven’t made it into a Russell Group university, if your chosen career path does not require a degree, and if earning potential is your primary motivator, then an apprenticeship comes out on top.

Essentially, the choice between an apprenticeship and a university degree is a personal one, dependent on individual circumstance. The important fact to note is that these are now considered equally valid options, and both are valued by employers, so young people shouldn’t feel pressured into choosing one over the other.