It was 10pm, let’s be honest a few G&Ts down, whereupon my nephew asked the age old question; ‘So what is better then, an Apprenticeship or a Degree?’.

My nephew is a Year 10 student, and we’d been chatting about what his options for the future might be.  He has great academic grades but really a passion for all things creative and a dream of making his own guitars, combining his passions of music and woodwork.  He’s made some already and over-looking the Aunty bias, they are amazing.

So as a Careers Professional, how do you answer a question like this?  What should you say as a parent, an aunty, a friend, a carer?  If it’s yourself you’re making this decision for, what do you need to know? Here are some of the key discussion points and considerations to help you with such a decision.

Breadth of subject

Apprenticeships are, generally speaking, quite specific, vocational, and focus on one particular type of job and/or sector.  In some cases, especially often larger firms, you may also get a little breadth from working across different teams as part of your training and this could be a good thing to ask about at interview.

If you’re really struggling to decide what your future career holds, then the very broad range of subjects on offer at university may appeal.  It is important to research these thoroughly as even a degree with the same name, may vary a lot from university to university.

As well as the different subject contents, the way you will learn is also very different between the two so thinking about how you enjoy learning is crucial.  Degrees tend to be more theory based, focused on academia and essay writing and lectures, whereas apprenticeships are much more practical and about learning through doing.  Again, these are key things to look at as part of your research as even with degrees, some subjects will have more practical elements than others.

Level of qualification

Technically, a degree is a higher level qualification than many apprenticeships, however there are now ever increasing frameworks for more advanced apprenticeships, including degree level.

If you know the career you are looking at, it’s also important you see if you have to get a degree to get into it as some careers do still require it.  An increasing number of roles/sectors now no longer require a degree but some of the apprenticeships they would accept may exist but not be available in your area.

Lived experience

Going to university isn’t just about the degree itself, it’s about all the things around that experience including potentially living away from home and social aspects, from joining clubs and societies to nights out (without having to tell your Mum what time you’ll be home).

With an Apprenticeship, you won’t get this experience.  However, you may find you make similar connections through other apprentices, particularly if you work for an organisation that takes on many apprentices at the same time.  What you won’t be able to do, is go on crazy nights out if you’ve got to be at work the next day (even though you’ll be earning a wage and ironically able to afford it more than a student actually can).

Work experience

Critical to the Apprenticeship experience is that you are getting work experience as part of your qualification and this will be looked on very favourably by employers.

With a degree you don’t get this experience often but some degrees do include a placement year, or sometimes shorter work experience and placements.  You can also make proactive use of the long holidays to build up your work experience.  None of this is as thorough as the kind of work exposure and work skills you get as an apprentice but it is useful none the less.

Financial considerations

There is no escaping the huge debt you will get into as a student.  You can apply for a loan, to cover your tuition fees and a (means tested) loan to cover other things like potential living costs and other expenses.  Whilst you don’t have to start making repayments until you are earning £27,288 or more, it is a financial burden you will carry with you for some time.

On the other hand, if you are under 25 and doing an apprenticeship, you won’t be paying a penny for your learning.  You’ll also be earning a salary (although potentially a lower than average one as you will be a trainee and your employer is investing in you not just with your salary and other associated costs, but with your training and time).

Are you ready?

Earning whilst you learn might sound great but whilst as part of the apprenticeship you are given time to study, you will be effectively juggling study and working.  Add to that all the usual pressures of any job including being reliable, turning up on time, dealing with difficult people and managing a heavy workload, it isn’t for everyone straight away after sixth form/college.  You will also find that there isn’t a one size fits all simple place to look for apprenticeship vacancies either… there is no UCAS equivalent.

Whilst you don’t have to go away to study at university, many students do and you need to weigh up if you feel ready for such a big step.  Nerves and anxious anticipation are completely normal, but if it feels like more than that, it’s maybe a good idea to talk it all through with a trusted person in your life.

Both options will also require a lot from you in terms of applications and selling your amazingness, so starting to prepare for this as early as possible is a good idea.

And some final advice…

Unless you are 100% set on a role that 100% requires a degree, this is ultimately going to come down to what is right for you, both for now and for your career plans for the future.  And the only way that you’ll know what is right for you, your friend, your child, is to make sure you thoroughly research all the options.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ option for any of us when it comes to our career journeys and so it’s all about researching what will get us to where we want to be and where we’ll be happy in the journey.