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Editor of PHAM News, Chris Jones compares degree courses with apprenticeships

Earlier this month I attended an interesting event hosted by the Worshipful Company of Plumbers.

Each year the Livery Company invites experts in their field to give a lecture on topics related to the plumbing and heating industry, and this year’s talk focused on the relative merits of apprenticeships and university degrees.

One of the key issues highlighted on the day was that vocational pathways are still viewed by teachers and career advisors as a secondary choice – something only considered when more academic studies are not a viable option.

One of the problems, of course, is that the majority of those looking to offer advice to students have probably been university educated themselves and have no experience of what apprenticeships have to offer.

Unlike some other countries, where vocational qualifications appear to be more highly valued, it seems that there is no parity of esteem in the UK when it comes to the public perception of degrees versus apprenticeships, and that’s despite a plumbing and heating apprenticeship often taking longer to complete than a three-year degree course.

2021-22 students leave with a whopping £45,800 average debt

Chris Jones PHAM News Chris Jones Editor of PHAM News

A road to prosperity?

While choosing a career is not necessarily all about the financial rewards, it would be interesting to know how many degree students actually go on to enjoy a more prosperous employment than their plumbing counterparts.

The latest analysis suggests that the average debt for the cohort of students who started their university courses in 2021-22 is a whopping £45,800.

Even if only a small percentage of them go on to repay the loan in full, it still represents a considerable burden to have to carry through most of your working life.

In comparison, rather than racking up debt, most tradespeople will be able to earn some good money while learning the skills of their profession – something that surely should give pause for thought for the thousands of school-leavers who aspire to go to university each year.

Job security from AI

For most people, job security is another important consideration when looking at future career options.

According to many commentators, the world is currently in the early stages of the fourth industrial revolution – a digital revolution where artificial intelligence is set to disrupt the labour market and displace workers from numerous sectors, including customer services, data processing and even the creative arts.

The recent launch of more advanced online tools like ChatGPT has helped to highlight the potential of AI to deliver information and write copy that could well threaten the earning power of those who use their writing ability to make a living (including this one!).

However, the ability of AI to replicate the skills of tradespeople such as plumbers and electricians looks to be severely limited.

Skills for the future

The government’s decarbonisation ambitions provide another reason why skilled plumbing and heating engineers are likely to be in demand for many years to come.

As the UK transitions away from its reliance on fossil fuels, youngsters setting out in the industry are going to be required to learn about a more diverse range of heating solutions, requiring multiple skills and a better understanding of system design.

No longer required to replace one white box with another, heating installers will have the opportunity to be employed for their expertise in energy efficiency, providing householders with cost-saving solutions that have been designed to meet the specific needs of both the property and the building’s occupants.

Such a rise in skills levels and professionalism can only have a positive impact on the earning potential of those who choose to embark on a plumbing apprenticeship, presenting those with ambition with a rewarding and more widely respected career that is likely to see them safely through to retirement.

I wonder how many undergraduates can currently be assured of the same?

Chris Jones is editor of PHAM News