Degrees Apart

The Government is encouraging careers in trades, but there still seems to be a pause in coversation when you say you’re deciding not to go to university after graduation – why is that? Sharon Paterson Smith investigates what is more valuable – a certificate or a degree?

“Your sister is graduating next week. Have you had another think about going to uni?” His parents brought this up often enough, particularly as his younger sister’s final days of university approached. Despite his four year apprenticeship and near decade in the workforce, it seemed Sean’s* years of hard work meant nothing to his family unless it was preceeded by a Bachelor of. Sean had two investment properties, a share portfolio, substantial savings and was making preparations to propose to his girlfriend of five years – as soon as the purchase of their joint home had settled.

Excluding the time at TAFE for his electrical apprenticeship, Sean had no formal training after finishing high school and was proud of his achievements, built from lots of overtime, penny-pinching and seeking expert financial advice. He was on track to retire at 45 and to escape the rat race he’d seen his parents and their friends trapped in their entire lives.

OECD data from the past ten years shows an upward trend in Australia of completion of tertiary education across the population – it seems we are following in the United States’ steps in making university the next logical progression from high school.

From an employment point of view it seems that those with trades are better equipped to enter the workforce upon finishing their training compared with their tertiary-educated counterparts. University graduate Emily* was able to gain entry-level employment with her Business Management degree however it took many years of on-the-job training before she was able to specialise in her university major of marketing, and to reach the accompanying pay scale.

Sean on the other hand was able to choose from a variety of specialisations as a newly qualified tradesman – having received the training and hands-on experience throughout his apprenticeship that potential employers wanted. Sean was earning money from his first day as an apprentice, and by the time he was a tradesman he was earning substantially more than his peers who had attended university.

As an employer in the web design industry Paul* knows exactly what he likes to see in a potential employee – someone who can adapt to change when faced with difficulties. Degrees in multimedia design are offered by many universities and TAFEs these days however there is a multitude of self-taught developers, artists and programmers in the industry also.

“Programmers who have been coding since high school are the best at problem solving, as that’s what they are used to.” he says, “Some of the top designers I know are self-taught. You can’t teach creativity.” Paul concedes that tertiary-educated developers may arrive on the job requiring further training however they were more receptive to direction than their self-taught counterparts.

But it’s not just about employability and earnings. Both Sean and Emily have witnessed judgement passed on the status of their education in different ways.

Sean had been snobbed by many a university student in his younger days when sharing stories over a drink. “Once they found out I was a tradie, they’d just be polite until they could get away. But it’s funny, it was only with uni students – I’ve had no problems with educated, older people.”

Emily admits that she believes strongly in the need for her future children to pursue a tertiary education as a foundation for their careers, however she knows this will be a point of conflict with her husband. He does not have a university education, and feels one is a waste of time and money – and hard work is the answer. “We’ve had many disagreements over this topic.”

Sean and Emily both have friends and family with a mixture of educational backgrounds and incomes, and both groups have had ups and downs in their careers and in their finances. Perhaps Sean sums it up best. “Maturity about all of this comes with age. Whether someone is worth getting to know is based more on what they do for a living.”

*Names have been changed

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