Some people have had a solid life plan since they were five. But for most people, choosing a career is a daunting decision that still looms large at the end of school. If you’ve always enjoyed more practical tasks and working with your hands, a career in the trades will set you up for success and has the potential to be just as lucrative as most other careers out there. That being said, a university degree has its perks too.
Let’s compare the pros and cons of an apprenticeship versus university study.
Short on time? Skip ahead:
- First of all, what is an apprenticeship?
- Apprenticeship: pros and cons
3. Learning experience
4. Earning potential
5. Be your own boss
- University: pros and cons
3. Learning experience
4. Earning potential
- The final verdict
First of all, what is an apprenticeship?
An apprenticeship is a great way to gain a formal qualification and hands-on experience while working and getting paid. You learn from your employer, gain experience, study, and earn an income. Once you’re finished, you’ll have an industry-recognised qualification and be ready to jump into a career in the trades.
Apprenticeships: pros and cons
An apprenticeship gives you the opportunity to earn while you learn, and get hands-on experience right from the get-go. While this is great for earning money and learning practical skills, it might also mean you have to make some lifestyle sacrifices.
- Financial security. Because you get to earn while you learn, you can get a head start on saving without racking up any student debt. This will put you in a great financial position earlier in life than a lot of your peers.
- Develop new skills and new relationships. You’ll learn to adapt to new environments quickly and you might also be able to earn more money by taking on a new role once you’re qualified.
- Making sacrifices. Moving straight into full-time work comes with a lot of responsibility. While you might get away with skipping a lecture or two at university, skipping apprenticeship commitments could seriously impact your ability to get qualified.
- Busy schedule. You’ll be juggling full-time work alongside study.
- Fewer holidays. Unlike university, working life doesn’t include long summer holidays.
- Starting a new job can be stressful. There’s always a risk that the job you’ve trained for might not be what you were expecting. Once you become a fully qualified and employed tradesperson in your own right, you’ll instantly be given a whole lot more responsibility. Make sure you’re ready for it.
Currently, people in almost every trade are in high demand. That means when you start an apprenticeship, the odds are high that your employer will keep you on once qualified, with top employers retaining around 91% of their apprentices.
- See the world while earning money. The great thing about trades is that they are universal skills that you can apply anywhere in the world. Once you have a qualification, you can take your skills abroad, meet new people, and learn new skills from different cultures and work styles.
- Get your qualification quickly. Some apprenticeships can be completed in as little as 2 years.
- No option to work remotely. This means that taking a holiday or quick break can be a bit tricky. If you’re away too long, work can pile up and you may be in for a rough couple of weeks when you return. It also means that you might have to spend a bit of time commuting to work each day.
- Additional work requirements. To work in certain countries, you may need to pay for additional accreditation to prove that you can work to a satisfactory standard. You may also be required to buy most (or all) of your own tools and equipment, which can cost a pretty penny.
3. Learning experience
Unlike a university degree, where students and their lecturers are effectively strangers to each other, apprenticeships offer a unique learning experience where you get to work closely with the person teaching you while they help you to apply your skills practically.
- Learning to apply your new skills to the real world. It’s the best way to become competent quickly and ensure you don’t run into any issues when you go out on your own.
- Up-to-the-minute skills. You can be sure the skills you learn are relevant to your future career because you get to see them in action.
- Lots of physical labour. Rain, hail, or shine: you’ll likely be on your feet all day, often outside. Because of this, exhaustion is a common challenge, and with work-sites being dangerous, you’ll need to make sure you can stay alert.
4. Earning potential
After completing an apprenticeship and moving into a full-time role, your hourly rate will increase and you’ll be earning more. If you’re willing to work hard and be smart about building a successful trade business, you could significantly increase your income.
Pro tip: don't be afraid to ask for a pay rise! Check out Hayden Wright's tips for requesting a raise:
- A steady salary that reflects your skills. You can easily budget and plan for your expenses, plus any new skills you develop can add more money to your base salary.
- Flexible hours. There will be plenty of opportunities to work extra hours if you’re short on cash — there’s always something that needs to be done on-site and tradespeople are in hot demand these days. However, there will also be times when you feel you can afford to take it easy. Sometimes, if you’re ahead of schedule and you’ve smashed your goals for the day, you can clock off early and enjoy some free time.
- Start your own business and earn even more!
- Limited perks. Big windfalls such as bonuses are not as common in trades as they are in the corporate world. So, pre-Christmas or holidays, make sure you’ve budgeted well enough to not need any extra perks.
- Slow periods. As a contractor, you need to be prepared to face the slow times. There may be stretches where you’re unable to pick up any new work. Make sure you’ve got a plan for if this happens and try to see it as an opportunity to improve your personal brand or learn some new skills.
5. Becoming your own boss
Doing an apprenticeship means you’ll develop independence and practical life skills as well as those all-important job-specific skills. You’ll be exposed to the realities and responsibilities of running your own trade business as you learn from local builders, electricians, plumbers, or joiners working in your community.
- Better work-life balance. You can delegate work and earn more money.
- Passive income. Get a good team behind you so that you can step back from the tools and go on holiday while your business continues to run smoothly.
- It can be more stressful. It can be harder to find free time with all the additional admin duties involved in growing a trade business.
- Financial risk. Starting a trade business often requires owner investment to get things up and running.
University degrees: pros and cons
Going to university means getting a taste of independence without being thrown in the deep end. You might choose to move cities or go flatting, and this gives you the chance to experience living away from your parents, making new friends, cooking your own meals, and (sadly) washing your own laundry.
- Freedom! You have the exclusive say on what goes on in your life. You'll meet lots of new people and learn some really important life skills.
- Discover what you want out of life. University is more than just school work, it’s often about discovering new things about yourself and learning how to be independent.
- Bigger debt. University degrees can be costly, depending on what you choose to study. If you continue to study for multiple years, it’s likely that you’ll rack up student debt. While for some, this can be paid off relatively quickly, many find themselves trying to pay it off for years on end.
- Hard to save. When your studies start to get serious and you find yourself spending more and more time in class or the library, it quickly becomes apparent that balancing a job on top of all your uni work could be really tough. Because of this, it’s hard to balance out your expenses without borrowing money, and saving is even more difficult.
If you’re someone who likes to dive deep into certain subjects, university study could be a great fit. Over the course of your degree, you’ll become an expert in your chosen subject.
- Access to plenty of jobs. Some jobs are completely unattainable without a certain degree — think doctors, lawyers, and vets. However, nowadays, university degrees are more flexible and can be used more as proof of your commitment than they are of a certain skill set — meaning you can get a job in a certain field, even if that’s not the field you studied.
- More opportunities. If you nail your studies and prove to yourself and the university that you’re capable, you can pursue higher qualifications than a standard bachelor’s degree. You could get a master’s degree or even a PhD — one of these will place you in even higher demand when you’re ready to enter the workforce.
- No job guarantee. Most industries come with good job prospects, but it’s not always guaranteed that you’ll find the job you want straight out of university. Often, you’ll have to start at the bottom of the pile doing the boring stuff while you prove that you’ve got what it takes to make it to the top.
- Student loans. University qualifications don’t come cheap. Once it’s all said and done, you’ll have paid for living expenses, tuition fees, and other costs related to student life. To do this, you may need to take out a student loan. If you supplement your studies with a part-time job, you might be able to significantly reduce your loans, but if not, you could find yourself trying to pay it off for years to come.
3. Learning experience
University study provides an opportunity to alter your outlook on the world. For the first time in your life, you have enough independence to move to a new place, learn new ideas, experience new cultures, and meet interesting people.
- Become a creative problem-solver. Exposure to new perspectives and different ways of thinking will help you develop sought-after work skills.
- Inherit a wealth of knowledge. Studying something at university gives you a lot of time to master every aspect of the subject. In a matter of years, you can emerge as an expert on the topic and get jobs with pay that reflects that.
- Get a taste of different skills. Many universities will make sure that you branch out with your studies and try a whole bunch of different courses to begin with. This will give you the best chance to decide exactly what you want to do before things get too serious.
- A lot of pressure. Most degrees require at least three years’ study and hefty tuition fees. If you get there and decide you don’t want to continue, it can feel like a waste of time and money. Try to remember that even if this happens, it was still useful to try it out.
- Impersonal learning experience. With classes filling up more and more each year, it’s hard to get to know your lecturers and tutors one-on-one. This means you might not always be able to ask questions, or even feel that you can approach your teaching faculty if you need to.
4. Earning potential
Although university study doesn’t usually offer workplace experience, you’ll learn to think critically, carry out research, process large amounts of information, and question assumptions. These life-long skills are transferable and can be applied to almost anything.
- Huge earning potential. Certain degrees will gear you up for a career path that can make you a lot of money. Just don’t expect to be making the big bucks right out of the gate.
- Competitive job market. With university degrees becoming increasingly common, it’s hard to establish a point of difference that will land you the big money.
- The need to prove yourself. It’s all well and good to know how to do things in theory, but applying what you’ve learned to the real world is a whole different kettle of fish. You might need to spend a couple of years proving yourself before anyone’s ready to give you a big-time role.
The final verdict
An apprenticeship or a university degree are both great choices. If you’re fresh out of school, being decisive and practical now is the best thing you can do for your future. Once you set the goal, it’s much easier to get where you want to go. In a few short years, you’ll be earning good money, and have practical skills under your belt.
Remember, the choices you make now are not set in stone. If you end up feeling like you’ve made the wrong decision down the track, you can always switch it up and try something new!
If you want to learn more about apprenticeships, check out our article on how to get an apprenticeship in the trades.