Are Engineering Apprenticeships Better Than a Degree?

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Engineering apprenticeships become more and more popular and many young people decide to skip the university step and go straight into the industry. And those who don’t still struggle with making this choice. Let’s look at the list of pros and cons for both options from a point of view of someone recently making the same decision.

University – Pros

1. Accreditation for Chartership

For many professionals, their aim is to become a chartered mechanical engineer, civil engineer, architect or surveyor depending on their field of study. This means that they are qualified to the highest professional standard, leading to potential responsibilities, promotions and pay rises. If you study your degree at an accredited university you are well on your way towards becoming a chartered professional. With the first step being that you achieve a degree in your field, followed by master’s level knowledge in a related subject and finally, professional experience and accreditation. Many degrees offer the chance to start checking off points on this list, whilst many apprenticeships don’t allow study at an undergraduate or postgraduate level.

2. University Experience and Independence

The ‘university experience’ is certainly an interesting topic, especially from the view of a student about to finish college or sixth form. University will allow you to take the first steps towards living as an adult and looking after yourself. This can be daunting for some but for many is an exciting prospect. I certainly couldn’t wait to get out there into the world and start seeing new things. The people who you meet at your university have the chance to change your life completely and this can be really important in developing yourself as a person emotionally and academically.

3. Good Careers Department and Industrial Links

Universities often employ a careers adviser in your school of study. This person is responsible for using their many years of industrial knowledge and links to industry to aid the school and students. This often includes finding and sharing the latest jobs, internships and opportunities or even organising industrial projects for current students. The latter allow students to work for a real company during their course to complete projects and learn how it feels to work in the industry whilst developing industrial links for their future selves. These links can often lead to further internships and graduate jobs, or at least give you the knowledge that this particular part of industry isn’t for you.

4. Scholarships and Bursaries

If you are from a low-income background or have particularly outstanding qualifications it may be possible to apply for a scholarship or bursary. This would mean that you are given extra cash to fund your studies. A common example of this could be the Women in Engineering scheme. This scheme encourages more young women to participate in engineering. Although this scheme is limited for obvious reasons there are many other schemes. Some allow students to participate in more sports clubs and societies. These schemes are almost always non-repayable and will be in addition to your student loan.

5. Specialisation in Your Topic of Interest

An honours degree will allow you to complete an extended research project in your area of interest. Whilst many choose simple industrial projects I opted to study a fluid dynamics thesis to develop my skills in CFD (computational fluid dynamics). The studies are overseen by academics in the area and if necessary industrial partners too. This allows you to focus your degree towards a topic that you have developed an interest in over the course of your degree program. Often this can lead to a job in that field, and if not, certainly won’t harm your career prospects in any industry.

University – Cons

1. Long Term Debt

Although degree prices are subject to change, they are very expensive but could be argued to provide the best long-term value for money. With the current cost of an undergraduate degree being £9,000 or more per year the cost can be a significant influence. The large debt at the end of the degree might put you off, but don’t forget that with your degree you could potentially be earning a lot more than those without one.

2. Relies on Good Results

A degree’s entrance requirements will probably mean that you need good grades. Throughout the degree you will be reliant on your good exam technique to score well, but you may also score highly in less academic tasks too, and take the pressure off your exams a little.

SEE ALSO: 4 Alternative Careers for Engineers

3. Large Academic Workload

At a good university, you should expect a pretty big workload. This will include work outside of the normal hours of work and relies on you putting the hours in when needed. It’s something that all students get used to eventually but you may prefer a slightly different schedule.

4. Moving Away from Home

Although this point certainly won’t apply to everyone, it can be a significant point to consider if you are particularly fond of living at home. Some students can’t handle the pressure whilst they are away from their family and feel the need to move back home. Others get used to the isolation and find solace in their new-found friends instead.

5. Three Year Commitment

An undergraduate degree is a three-year commitment (four years, if you include a year-in-industry or an integrated master’s year) which is only recognised when you finish. If you decided to leave your degree 2 years in, you wouldn’t receive any formal recognition for your work, whilst an apprenticeship may allow for a career change after the first year or two.

6. Best to Add Industrial Experience as You Go

You should aim to complete some other industrial experience around your course to show future employers you are interested in the subject and have a good work ethic. This might be a summer internship or a year out. Without any industrial experience, a graduate is not much more than an academic with no formal published research. You should aim to gain experience to make yourself as attractive as possible to employers.

7. Universities Show Off on Open Days

Don’t be fooled by the fancy equipment that universities wheel out year after year to show off. In my personal experience, this is one of the most dishonest tactics that universities use to take your money (they are businesses after all). Whatever they might show you it’s unlikely that the specialist equipment is accessible for undergraduates. They are mostly unique research projects handled by one or two PhD students or research staff.

Apprenticeships – Pros

1. Well Paid

Usually… Many apprenticeships, especially higher apprenticeships pay fairly well as they need to entice students in somehow, and cash is certainly a curve-ball for students making the decision. Your company will often start you on a competitive wage and give you regular increases to recognise your improvement and progress.

2. Additional Benefits

Medical cover, dental cover, company cars. These benefits are all available should you choose the right apprenticeship. Although these benefits may be instead of a slight wage increase they certainly mean that more of your wage is available for the things you need it for.

SEE ALSO: What the Best Industry Companies do for their Employees

3. All-But-Guaranteed Career at the End

Companies are offering apprenticeships for several tactical reasons. One major reason is to line up qualified staff ready to replace the ever-ageing workforce. It would be a surprise if your company didn’t offer good apprentices the chance to stay on after their time has been served. It wouldn’t be a good investment for the company if they didn’t offer permanent positions to good apprentices.

4. Allows You to be Self-Sufficient

With your apprentice wage, you may be able to support yourself and become independent from your parents’ financial help. This is not always the case, but in engineering there are many higher apprenticeships available that will pay enough for you to live off your own earnings.

5. Some Support HNC, HND and Bachelors Degrees

Particularly relevant to the engineers among you. Some companies will allow part-time study as you complete your apprenticeship giving you the best of both worlds. Obtaining an academic qualification whilst you work and earn. The best part is, the company will often completely fund the study for you. This could mean that you avoid student debt completely.

Apprenticeships – Cons

1. Full Time Hours

This one speaks for itself really. Full time hours will see you working for around 37.5 hours per week. The hours may not be appealing at first but you’ll quickly adjust to it as you settle in. Just don’t think that university will be the easy option as engineering is a full-time course. Perhaps even more if you study an intensive degree and enjoy studying.

SEE ALSO: Top 10 Engineering Companies to Work For

2. Very Specific Roles

Sometimes the company you serve your time at will train you up to do a specific job at the end. This job might be too specific for the working world. This could mean that you can’t really change careers as easily as you might with a generalised degree. You can always re-train, but this might not be the easiest way to develop a varied and interesting career.

3. Friends at University Might Advance Faster

If your friends go to university, they might well learn much faster than you do whilst you do your apprenticeship. This is due to the constant academic and intellectual stimulation university students will receive. Apprenticeships can be more vocational or include manual work. Students will attend regular lectures and complete assignments and exams, whilst completing design projects.

4. Long Apprenticeships

Particularly if your apprenticeship allows you to compete a part-time degree you might have a very long apprenticeship. Certainly, the apprenticeship I applied for meant that I’d have to serve for over 5 years. This can be good or bad, but for me the long commitment wasn’t ideal. If you want to move around and try different jobs then a long apprenticeship might not fit your lifestyle.

So Which Should I Choose?

Ultimately the decision lies within yourself, not this article. Hopefully this has given you plenty to think about. You should now decide which points are the most important ones for you to consider. Finally make your decision and enjoy the beginning of your career.

Good luck!

SEE ALSO: Why is Engineering One of the Highest Paying Jobs?

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