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Trade Apprenticeship vs University Degree: Navigating the Best Path

Trade Apprenticeship vs University Degree

Pictured right: MIGAS Boilermaker Apprentice, Kyle, with his trade supervisor learning on the job.

When it comes to choosing a path for post-secondary education, a university degree has long been viewed as the gold standard.

In recent years, however, trade apprenticeships have emerged as a sought-after, formidable alternative to going to uni, offering a unique blend of hands-on training, career readiness, and financial advantages.

In this article, we'll explore why a trade apprenticeship can be a better choice than a university degree for many individuals.

1. Learning by Doing

The 'earn while you learn' model is one of the most compelling aspects of trade apprenticeships. Unlike university programs primarily focusing on theoretical knowledge, apprenticeships are rooted in practical, hands-on learning experiences.

Apprentices get to work in real-world settings, applying their skills as they learn them. This approach locks in their learning and prepares them for their chosen field's specific demands and expectations.

2. Lower Financial Burden

The cost of higher education has been skyrocketing, leaving many university graduates with hefty HECS-HELP loans. A university degree can feel like an invisible cost upfront, but you will have to potentially forfeit hundreds of dollars per week to pay back your loan.

Trade apprenticeships, on the other hand, offer a more financially sustainable model.

Not only do apprentices get paid a wage to study, but their theoretical training at TAFE is usually free – either fully covered by Government subsidies or by their employer. This debt-free approach means that once an apprentice has finished their ticket, they can typically jump straight up to a higher pay bracket and not worry about paying back a $30k to $150k+ university debt.

In addition, financial assistance programs for apprentices are available to help supplement wages during training.

3. Immediate Entry Into the Workforce

Trade apprenticeships allow individuals to enter the workforce much sooner and more easily than many university degrees.

Most apprenticeships last between three and four years, and more often than not a full-time position is waiting for you with the company that trained you. In fact, according to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (2021), 94% of trade apprentices were employed after getting qualified.

As a qualified tradie, you can also seek out opportunities interstate (like FIFO workers) or even overseas.

4. High Demand for Skilled Trades

The demand for skilled tradespeople is robust and growing. The Government even identifies those required occupations in the Australian Apprenticeship Priority List, and they come with additional financial support. (Which increase again if the training is in the clean energy space through a green apprenticeship.)

Many sectors are experiencing a shortage of skilled labour, so trade apprentices often find themselves in high demand once they complete their training. These include:

Demand for specialist and high demand trades can lead to excellent job security and the potential for high wages.

5. Real-World Experience

Apprentices gain valuable industry experience throughout their training, working alongside experienced, qualified tradespeople. This real-world experience is invaluable and provides a level of job readiness that regular classroom-based learning at university can't match.

And, by being part of an actual work setting, apprentices learn not just the technical aspects of the job, but also essential workplace skills such as effective communication, teamwork, time management, and professionalism.

These skills are integral to a successful career in any field but are particularly critical in trades where collaboration and efficiency are key.

6. Physical and Mental Engagement

Trade careers often involve physical work, which can be appealing to those who prefer a more active job. Some people are made for a desk job – for other people that would be punishment!

Luckily, in Australia, there are profitable and fulfilling pathways for all different types of people. If you’re more of a doer, then a trade might suit you perfectly.

This physical aspect, combined with the problem-solving and critical thinking involved in trades like engineering and electrical, can lead to a more engaging and satisfying workday compared to office-based roles.

7. Career Flexibility and Advancement

Contrary to popular belief, a trade career can offer significant flexibility and opportunities for advancement. Many tradespeople start their own businesses, become contractors or advance to supervisory and managerial positions.

The skills learned in a trade are often transferable, providing flexibility to move between different locations or industries.

8. Networking Opportunities

During their training, apprentices build professional networks within their industry, connecting with employers, suppliers, and fellow tradespeople.

These connections can be crucial for future job prospects, referrals, collaborations, or even starting a business. Being known and trusted in the industry can open doors that might otherwise remain closed.

9. Continuous Learning and Adaptability

Trades are constantly evolving with technology and practices. This environment encourages continuous learning and adaptability, skills that are highly valued in today’s job market.

Many tradespeople have opportunities to upskill or retrain in new techniques and technologies, keeping their skills relevant and marketable. This is especially true in the clean energy space.

10. Personal Fulfillment

Many find that working in a trade offers a high level of personal satisfaction. The tangible results of their labour – whether it's a house built, an electrical system installed, or a plumbing issue fixed – provide a sense of accomplishment and pride… something that can be less apparent in professions where the results are more abstract or intangible.

In a study by Graduate Careers Australia (2020) only 42% of university graduates were happy with their career choice, while the majority (60%) of tradespeople reported job satisfaction.

Bonus Benefit: Making a Difference

A significant yet often unspoken benefit of being a tradesperson is the profound sense of making a difference in the community and society at large.

From building homes to maintaining critical infrastructure like water supply and electricity, their work is fundamental to daily life. The essential nature of these services means that tradespeople contribute significantly to public safety and comfort, impacting the lives of many.

Many trades are at the forefront of implementing sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, such as energy-efficient construction, renewable energy installations, and electronic vehicle manufacturing and maintenance.

Finally, experienced tradespeople take on the role of mentors to apprentices – passing on skills, craftsmanship, knowledge, and values. This transfer of expertise ensures that essential skills are preserved and advanced, impacting future generations.

This contribution to the community can be immensely fulfilling and offers a clear sense of purpose.

Get Started in a Trade Apprenticeship

While university degrees are a suitable path for many, trade apprenticeships offer an equally valid and often more practical route to a successful career.

They provide real-world experience, financial benefits, job security, and skilled, hands-on work satisfaction.

In a world where the nature of work is continually changing, trade apprenticeships represent a dynamic and rewarding path aligned with the needs of modern industries and economies.

For those weighing their options post-high school, consider that an apprenticeship in a trade is not just a viable alternative to university; it could be the key to a lucrative, fulfilling career.

Find an apprenticeship on the MIGAS Jobs Board.

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Published 17/01/2024

In the spirit of reconciliation, MIGAS Apprentices & Trainees acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their Elders past and present and emerging, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.