University or Apprenticeship? Finding the Better Option.

It’s an age-old question: Is a university education the best way to acquire the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to launch a successful and sustainable career in technology? Or is an apprenticeship actually the ideal route?

Lately, choosing the right path has become even more complex. That’s because more employers are launching higher apprenticeships (such as degree apprenticeships) in order to grow their own talent, explained Dan Doherty, apprenticeship advisor with Big Y Group. Degree apprenticeships combine academic study from a university with practical experience (and pay a small salary).

At the same time, many of the jobs in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning, Big Data or advanced software engineering require traditional university degrees and mastery of computer science fundamentals and algorithms.

With all of that in mind, we asked two experts what aspiring tech pros should consider when exploring their options.

Identify Your Career Objectives, Budget and ROI

The first question you need to ask yourself when it comes to deciding education options: “What do I want to get out of the experience?”

That’s according to Ollie Sidwell, co-founder of RMP Enterprise. For instance, a university offers more than learning; it provides social interaction (and networking) that you can’t get with an apprenticeship.

Next, consider your long-term career goals, interests and passions, and compare lifetime costs-to-earnings to estimate the ROI of each option. Typically, college graduates in engineering or computer science earn more than apprentices. However, government studies have shown that degree apprentices earn more over the course of their careers than graduates from non-elite universities.

Most university curriculums focus on general education, math and computer science fundamentals, rather than skills for a particular job or role. If you’re having a hard time selecting a specialty or industry, traditional degrees offer the broadest choice (but also the highest cost).

“It’s important to consider the tech stack you’ll be learning, because many colleges are teaching technology that is already out-of-date or will be soon,” Doherty advised. “High-level apprenticeships were designed to close those skills gaps.”

On the other hand, degree apprenticeships are usually paid for by businesses, so you’ll be learning job- and industry-specific skills that may not apply to another role if you aren’t retained after your apprenticeship (or decide to switch specialties).

You may be better off taking a free introductory programming course, data science or analytics course until you figure out the career path you want to pursue and whether you actually need a degree, Doherty added. Degree apprenticeship programmes are co-designed by employers, so you want to be sure it aligns with your interests; and in some specialties, acquiring three to four years of experience will actually supersede a degree.

Consider Your Learning Preferences and Timeline

Aspiring tech pros who are weighing their options should also ask themselves: “What is my learning style?”

Apprenticeships provide hands-on learning from real IT practitioners and the opportunity to develop core behavioral and soft skills (such as multi-tasking, negotiation tactics or stakeholder communications) that can give you an advantage over graduates from traditional universities. For the individual who learns best by doing or prefers a blended learning format, an apprenticeship may be the way to go.

“Apprenticeships provide context,” Sidwell explained. “And opportunities to apply your skills right away, that you may not get in a university setting.”

However, juggling work and school can be difficult, and every employer has different requirements, programmes and university alliances, Doherty warned. For example, if you opt for a degree apprenticeship, you may be required to work full-time or four days a week and attend classes in the evenings.

If you want to gain a full bachelor’s degree, Level 6, which is recognized in the U.S. or Australia, it can take as long as five or six years. While you won’t rack up a lot of debt in the process, you may not have much downtime, either.

Conversely, for those who want to fully immerse themselves in academic study and learn computer science theory, university may be the better option. Plus, most full-time students typically earn a bachelor’s degree in three to four years and have the opportunity to acquire hands-on experience through side gigs, student projects and internships.

The good news is, there is no “right” or “wrong” choice—just different choices. It’s a matter of figuring out what your career goals and interests are, and which form of education will help you meet them.

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