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Should I go to university, do an apprenticeship...or do something else?

Meg Timbrell
Content & Social Media Manager
6 min read

Should you go to university or do an apprenticeship? We help weigh up the pros and cons, and offer some surprising alternatives.

Is uni really essential?

It depends...

Uni is great for some people - but for those who want to get started in the world of work straight away and earn while they learn, apprenticeships are coming out of the shadows as a really smart choice.

University, of course, can be essential for some roles - like medicine or law - but there are a surprising number of jobs that a degree is no longer essential for, so it’s really important to be aware of your options and make the informed choice that’s right for you.  

University

The pros & cons of university:

Apprenticeships

How do apprenticeships work?

An apprenticeship is a job where you learn, gain experience, and get paid. It's a great way of entering into a job and making contacts while you work that will all help you get into a job at the end of your time as an apprentice.

To be an apprentice you must be 16+ and not already be in full-time education.

You'll:

  • undergo training for a specific job
  • get paid (with holiday leave)
  • gain hands-on work experience
  • study for (at least) 20% of your time as an apprentice - at a college, university, or with a training provider
  • be assessed during and at the end of your apprenticeship

Apprenticeships last anywhere between 1 and 6 years, depending on the level of apprenticeship:

Search for relevant apprenticeships on Sort, or visit the government's Apprenticeships section for more background on apprenticeships and stories of people who have started their career this way.

* Food for thought...

The Sutton Trust found in 2019 that higher apprenticeships at level 5 result in greater lifetime earnings than undergraduate degrees from non-Russell Group universities.

The pros & cons of an apprenticeship:

A third way...degree apprenticeships

Degree apprenticeships, introduced in 2015, allow you to gain a full bachelor's degree (Level 6) or a master's degree (Level 7) while working and gaining experience. Lots of universities are offering them now, taking between 3 and 6 years to complete. They are an incredible way of gaining hands-on experience while studying part-time at university, as well as being perfect for those who don't want to land themselves in thousands of pounds of debt after studying a traditional degree at university because you will be earning while you learn.

The sectors where degree apprenticeships are available include:

  • Business & administration
  • Care services
  • Childcare & education
  • Construction
  • Creative & design
  • Digital
  • Engineering & manufacturing
  • Health & science
  • Legal, finance, and accounting
  • Protective services (e.g. police)

Or, something a bit different... 

Gap year

Taking a gap year can be an amazing way to gain confidence, learn a new skill, or discover more about yourself.

Pros

  • Break from education: Taking a break from education not only feels great but can also help you find a clear headspace if you’re uncertain about which direction to head in. Use it to take your time and think things through.
  • Confidence booster: If you’re not confident enough to start university or go into a job, gap years can be extremely beneficial to build confidence and independence.
  • Work experience: Working and saving money is a step forwards toward the real world, and is a great way of teaching you the value of working hard.
  • Exam retake: If you need to retake an A level, you can not only productively work to achieve better grades, but also make the most of the extra time throughout the year to work or travel. 
  • Employers like it: Lots of employers really value people who have built up life experience and work experience during a gap year.

Cons

  • Can be expensive: If you already have a bit of money saved up, think about what you would rather put it towards, your first year of uni or a gap year? Travelling can be a lot more expensive than expected. If you do travel, ensure you make a proper budget before deciding - maybe get parents or other family members to help you with this. 
  • Wasting valuable time?: The question of if you should take a gap year depends on how you use this year. When future employers look at your CV and see that you’ve done a gap year they’ll want to know why, and how you made the most of this time to build skills and experience.  

For more info about whether or not taking a gap year is right for you, read our article ‘Should you take a gap year?’

Entry-level roles

There are many industries and job roles that you can apply to straight out of school or sixth form that don’t require a degree. Many of these job roles have no set requirements, but may require a good standard of general education, receiving A* to C or grade 4, or equivalent, in English, maths and science at GCSE level. 

For more on jobs that don't require a university degree read our article ‘10 job roles that you don’t need a degree for’.

Portfolio careers and self-employment

What's a portfolio career?

A portfolio career is defined by a career that has encompassed several different jobs in a variety of fields, or where you take on a number of different roles simultaneously. Someone who takes on multiple job roles at once is often known as a 'slashie'. Holding down multiple roles may feel demanding, but can often provide people who desire variety in their life with a greater purpose, and be far more rewarding than doing the same job day in, day out.

The world of work is changing, with technology creating a vast array of new job roles and even entirely new sectors. Multiple jobs, or career changes are often seen as an asset to a CV due to providing you with a diverse skill-set. 

Portfolio careers are also great if you have a variety of passions that you can’t pin down to one, and want to take different careers for a test drive, so to speak. Often, experiencing one job role can make you appreciate another job so much more, as Bobby Seagull told us about his transition from investment banking trader to teacher. 

Our article, ‘Why you’ll most likely have more than one career’, discusses the benefits of career change - click here to read more.

How do I become self-employed?

Do you have a passion project that you could turn into a business opportunity? 'Side hustles' have boomed during the pandemic, with companies like Etsy making it easier for small business owners to sell their products on.

Whether this is making jewellery to sell on eBay, creating pieces of art to sell and add to a portfolio, or tutoring a subject you specialise in, you can gain experience through self-employment on your own terms, working flexibly. It can be a great way of proving that you have skills like self-motivation, business management, and budgeting - even if you're just learning on the job. Plus, starting out as self-employed can be the perfect place to make mistakes when starting out, as you are your own boss!

The government website has lots of information about becoming a 'sole trader'. And watch out for self-employed income tax - you'll need to complete something called a 'Self Assessment' if you are earning money and self-employed. Click here for more info.

Want your voice heard? Send an email to megan.timbrell@sortyourfuture.com - we love hearing from you!

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