University is just the tortoise route to work skills

Oct 20, 2016

The apprenticeship route may give you a head-start on work skills – but is it necessarily like this forever? No, says the tortoise.

Hearing that ‘29 per cent of graduates are now earning less per hour than the average apprentice’ may cause one to question whether university is still a worthwhile route to work.

The fastest way to develop work skills is by working. That’s what an apprenticeship has over university. By the time a graduate leaves university and begins working he is playing catch-up with the apprentice.

One of my clients, Paul, a postgraduate in his first year of work, told me about several employees who came into the company straight after school as apprentices and then became full-time employees.

He said: “I recall a conversation with one of them who told me how he struggled with the decision of whether to go to university or not before deciding to do his apprenticeship. I realised that he probably learnt a great deal more about the world of work from his apprenticeship than I did at university.

“Furthermore, he developed his hard and soft skills at a faster rate than I did. He is three or four years younger than me and has over a year’s experience in media and a work environment than I do.”

Paul then admits, “The ability to get on well with others is probably the only soft skill I took from university and, ironically, I think this ability has worsened in the years since I left.”

Education first, work skills second

Many universities do their best to help graduates prepare for work by having them do projects, group work and presentations but, in all honesty, university is about education first, work skills second. Apprenticeships are about work skills first.

This is where the challenge is for graduates: in the first few years after university, with little or no work experience, it takes them longer to find a job.

But is this necessarily forever? Over the long-run, doesn’t things pan out? Isn’t it the case that a graduate’s earning potential stands equal or even greater? And do not graduates gain something from having gone to university that apprentices do not?

According to a new report, How MBA Programs Make Great Leaders and How They Fail, MBA graduates graduate less endowed with the soft skills employers want – but they’re better educated and their earning potential increases by as much as 50 per cent. While the major focus of the research was on the fact that MBA graduates were not stronger or were only marginally stronger in prized skills such as coaching, results orientation and visionary ability, it could not deny that they do not go on to develop these work skills eventually. Once they catch up on the work skills, they’re fine or better off.

University offers its own reward

“After weighting all of this up, I would agree that the education system is ignoring the soft skills employers care about,” Paul told me. “The skills mentioned in the report – coaching, results orientation and visionary leadership skills – were never touched on in any way or form during university – but I do still feel that education is a privilege and if you have the opportunity to go to university you’re obligated to take it. Yes, you will learn far more and progress quicker by going straight to work, but the experiences you get at university are also valuable.”

Paul did a Master’s degree because he didn’t know what he wanted to do and didn’t want to work yet. He has no interest in pursuing a career in his Master’s degree subject but is still glad he did it.

“For one thing it helps me in interviews and makes me seem smarter than I am. Again, there was the social element and chance to live in a different city. But the thing I took most is the ability to persevere and endure. My ability to endure will stand me in good stead for the rest of my life. The opportunity to do a Masters or MBA is a rarity, it is a chance to test and better yourself and I think it is worth doing. I do think one will learn something from the experience and will be better for it.

“In short, we have 40 years to work, so first go to university, learn, meet people, mature, have fun and learn a bit more about yourselves and different people.”

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