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Learning A Trade Or A University Degree

Trying to decide what’s best for your future career? Then you’re not alone. For every year thousands of Scots choose between bagging a trade and gaining a university degree.

Both routes offer plenty of opportunities. If you decide on a trade, you can learn all there is to know about your chosen profession through a mix of course work and on-the-job training. However a degree might offer you a greater deal of career choice when you finally enter the job market a few years later.

What is important is that you weigh up what will work for you. Not that long ago many teenagers were expected to go straight to university when they left school. No matter what you studied, spending time in further education was the norm. What’s more, it would near enough guarantee you a good job at the end of it.

But these days it is far harder to secure a job at the end of your studies, simply because there are more people fighting for fewer positions. Going to university can still be a rewarding life experience but the chances of walking straight into your chosen job have dramatically reduced.

If you decide to study in England and Wales you will also have to factor in tuition fees which can now be as much as £9000 a term. The introduction of fees has already had a dramatic impact in the number of people opting to study at college or university.

According to figures released by the Universities and Colleges Administration Service (UCAS) earlier this year, total applications in England are down 10 per cent compared to 2011 figures. 1

If your chosen discipline calls for a university degree, make the most of your studies and do all you can to improve your employability after that all-important graduation.

Knuckle down and join any extra-curricular clubs which might enhance your jobs prospects. If possible, try and gain some work experience in your chosen field before you graduate. Not only will this give you a good indication of what to expect, it will also help to put you ahead of the competition.

On a more practical level high living costs and even tuition fees can also have a dramatic impact on your studies. If the costs of studying are a worry, enrolling in a part-time course, taking on a part-time job or considering staying on at home rather than paying rent can all help cut costs.

There are plenty of university courses which will allow you to spread your studies over a few years rather than enrol full-time. Distance learning courses through institutions like The Open University are also a great idea if family or existing job commitments rule out a full-time course.

For those who know university is not for them, opting to learn a trade can be a very rewarding experience. For one thing, while others are still hitting the books you’ll already be earning a wage and putting your new-found knowledge into practice.

With average student debt in the UK now sitting at £19,400 it’s no wonder more people are taking stock of the education situation and looking at other options. 2

An apprenticeship is one of the most traditional ways to learn a trade and with the Scottish Government recently investing £69 million into new schemes there are plenty of different options available. 3 Combining on-the-job training with nationally recognised qualifications, they give you a chance to learn while getting a weekly wage.

There are hundreds of different types of apprenticeships – from account and finance-based schemes to construction and engineering. How long they last depends on what trade you’re learning but it’s not unusual for an apprenticeship to be as long as two, three or even four years.

Anyone over the age of 16 can apply for an apprenticeship scheme but other entry requirements depend on what you want to learn. You can choose between three levels – an Intermediate Apprenticeship, an Advance Level Apprenticeship and a Higher Apprenticeship.

Opting to learn a trade through a traditional apprenticeship is now very popular in Scotland. Last year 25,000 people embarked upon a Scottish apprenticeship scheme – a jump of 14 per cent compared to 20010/11 figures. 4

Being paid also has its advantages in that it can make leaning much more affordable. But it is worth noting that not everyone gets paid the same. If you are under 19 or over 19 and in your first apprenticeship year, the National Minimum Wage is currently £2.60. All other apprentices are eligible for the full National Minimum Wage appropriate for their age.

Many employers pay more, especially as you progress, but for many it can be tricky to learn a trade and juggle the costs of living. This is particularly true for older apprentices who decide to take on a trade later on in life.

According to UK Government figures for 2011, there has been a 40 per cent increase in the number of over 25-year-olds embarking on an apprenticeship compared to just 18 per cent the year before. 5

In tough times the ability to adapt and learn new skills can make all the difference. The days of a job for life are no longer here and if you are prepared to re-train or re-focus your abilities towards a different discipline all the hard work can really pay off.

It is worth remembering that some trades can be very lucrative. According to the average electrician can expect to earn £29,000 a year while the latest results from the Office of National Statistics states a mechanical engineer is likely to earn a yearly average of £39,142. 6

Perhaps the best way to decide what route is best for you is to look at where the current gaps in employment are. For instance there are skills shortages in engineering and science which could see you walk into a job straight after your training or studies.

Ultimately only you can decide whether opting for a degree or learning a trade will deliver the job of your dreams. But by thoroughly researching each path you can make a realistic and well informed decision.


1. Applications down 10%…

2. Average UK debt figures…

3. Scottish Government Apprenticeship Funding…

4. Scottish Apprenticeship figures…

5. Apprentices over 25 figures…

6. Office of National statistics…

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