Managing people

Apprentice vs graduate: is a degree the best indicator for a good hire?

Is a degree still the gold standard for employers?

A bachelor’s degree is viewed by many as the sure path to a good career with a high salary. But does the dream still match reality? With tertiary education often costing more than a new car, and vocational training providers offering a greater variety of courses, other career pathways are becoming more appealing to aspiring professionals. Here’s what that may mean for employers.


Employers shifting their focus

There have been signs of a shift in attitude among many employers around the need for higher education. PwC recently announced a ‘higher apprenticeship’ pilot program, which allows high school leavers to earn a business diploma while working as accountants and risk management consultants.

As well as giving the company a head-start in the battle for talent, it’s a move that helps to reduce student debt while creating more opportunities for disadvantaged students. Only last year, the danger of ‘degree debt’ stress increased, when HECS repayments started kicking in at an annual income of $45,000. Previously, the threshold was $55,874. 

PwC is just one example of an employer realising the benefits of letting its employees ‘learn while they earn’. It could indeed be a sign of things to come. But should it change the way you look at a candidate’s resume?



Why a degree still holds appeal

Some professions are likely to always require a degree – think medicine, science and law, for example. Furthermore, a degree should be looked at as much more than a piece of paper. Tertiary education is still a quality way to learn many valuable skills that will help the student succeed when they enter the workforce.

These skills will vary widely depending on the field chosen. But they will often include things like:

  • writing and researching
  • problem-solving
  • critical thinking
  • working in a team
  • presentation skills
  • time management

Lauren Taylor from SEEK Learning points out that a degree is not just about gaining new knowledge. She explains that a degree also shows a potential employer that the new hire has "persistence [and] overall ability, as well as a passion for that industry."

Of course, embarking on a course of higher study isn’t the only way to showcase these qualities. The idea of another three to four years of lectures, assignments and exams after finishing high school simply isn’t going to appeal to some people. And like famous college dropouts such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, many will still go on to achieve great things.

Alternative pathways to a job

PwC isn’t the only example of a company making a degree optional. Top technology companies such as IBM, Apple and Google are doing the same. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently disclosed that about half of the company’s employees in 2018 did not have university degrees.

This approach is based around the idea that job applicants should be screened on their actual skills for the job, rather than their educational background. In an interview with Fast Company, the head of talent for IBM noted that applicants could prove their technical prowess in a number of different ways. For example, by gaining a technical certification or attending a coding bootcamp.

It’s not just the tech world that’s dropping the need for a degree from many of its roles.

According to Business Insider, global jobs site Indeed recently released its list of the ten best-paid jobs that don’t require a degree, based on its research into the latest hiring trends. 

The top five included construction manager (the best paid at $155k a year), pilot, real estate agent and software engineer. Also making the top-10 list were HR manager, sales manager, and environmental health and safety officer. While all of these jobs require some form of specialised training, they prove that you don’t have to settle for a lesser career if you skip university.

Work is changing

As the economy becomes more globalised, automated and flexible, technical skills are no longer the only requirement for getting a job. The need for transferable enterprise skills, like creativity, communication, problem-solving, digital fluency and critical thinking, is higher than ever.

Many of these skills, despite being in short supply across a range of industries, are not easily learned on a university campus. Apprenticeships or traineeships, on the other hand, allow aspiring professionals to hone these skills on the job, while interacting with their team and real-world clients.

The NSW government has recently recognised this by pledging $285 million over six years to fund qualification fees for 100,000 new apprentices to fill skills gaps across different industries.

At the same time, the Australian vocational education and training (VET) system introduced a new vocational pathway, called Higher Apprenticeships. This type of training enables individuals to earn a Diploma, Advanced Diploma-level or Associate Degree while fully employed and earning a wage. Hiring an apprentice through this program allows learning to be tailored to the job and align with changing industry demands.

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