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Who comes off better: Uni or VET grads?

April 12, 2019

Who is better off - uni graduates or VET graduates? Here are five employment trends that suggest vocational education outshines a university degree with regard to employability, upskilling, job prospects, earning potential and even better mental health!

1. Merit trumps qualifications

Graduates no longer need a degree from a prestigious university to find employment. Today's employers increasingly look at real-world skills over qualifications - job-specific skills as well as ‘soft skills’ like communication, teamwork, initiative and problem-solving. Several top firms including Ernst & Young, Penguin Random House, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Apple and Google have recently relaxed or abandoned degree requirements altogether. In fact, some studies show that a candidate’s degree has no correlation with job performance.

In terms of employability, VET grads have ‘real world’ advantage over university grads because the VET model is geared towards industry partnership that equips students with hands-on skills. University students often need to do internships or volunteer to get job experience (which they rarely receive at uni) because courses tend to focus more on theory rather than practise.

2. Get upskilled!

Today’s youth are likely to have multiple jobs across different industries during their lifetime. The Foundation for Young Australians (2017) projects that a 15-year-old today may have some 17 jobs in five different industries throughout their working life. Future employees will need to upskill or re-skill as they shift between employers, move into different roles and change careers.

“Approximately 40% of existing university degrees will soon be obsolete and traditional undergraduate or postgraduate degrees could disappear within a decade.”

VET and TAFE providers are at the forefront of upskilling the Australian workforce and are best positioned to offer industry driven short courses and micro-credentials for ongoing skills development. In fact, ASQA’s 2017 survey found that 70.4% of VET students were not job-seekers, but were either changing careers, needing extra skills or required upskilling.

3. $$$$

Some people still think VET graduates earn lower wages than university graduates. But this is not true! VET grads can actually earn more than university graduates - the median full-time income for a vocational education graduate is $56,000, compared to $54,000 for students completing a Bachelor’s degree. In fact, the highest starting salary for VET qualifications is a Cert IV in Hazardous Areas (Electrical), which starts at $85,400 - higher than the highest starting salary for a Bachelor of Dentistry at $80,000.

When comparing training pathways students also take into account the opportunity cost. Not only does going to university take more time (approximately 3 to 5 years to complete a degree) but the course fees are significantly higher than TAFE or vocational education. VET students also have the option to earn while they learn (e.g. apprenticeships), which effectively means a student can start their career from day one of their studies.

4. Get a real job

A third of Australians believe that university graduates find work more easily than VET graduates. The reality is that almost 10 per cent more VET students are employed after graduating, compared to their uni counterparts. Findings also show that completing a VET course lowers the chance of becoming long-term unemployed and is one of the most accessible and cost-effective ways to access education.

VET qualifications have increasingly positive career prospects compared to university grads:

  • 78% of VET grads are employed immediately after completion, in contrast to only 39% of 20-25-year-old university grads
  • VET grads who completed an apprenticeship or traineeship have an employment rate of 82%
  • VET grads who complete a trade-based apprenticeship have an employment rate as high as 91%
  • 9 out of the 10 top occupations predicted to have the most jobs growth in Australia are in vocational training areas. See the below graph.
(Department of Employment, 2016, Australian Jobs)

5. Stressed out? maybe VET is better.

Lastly, with increasing concerns about the mental health of young Australians it is worth thinking about the impact of study pathways on student wellbeing. Mission Australia says the number of young people reporting concerns about mental health has jumped by 10% during the past year.

A Year13 survey of Australian youth asked university students how they feel about their life. The top answer was ‘stressed’ (20%), followed by ‘tired’ (18%), ‘satisfied’ (16%) and ‘nervous’ (13%). University students were particularly worried about HECS-HELP debt and 62% had considered dropping out.

“ATAR was a nightmare... I actually couldn’t (do it) without being stressed and anxious and fatigued all the time. So, I dropped ATAR and went into VET. I then found out that I could spend my Wednesdays of Year 12 at TAFE studying a certificate IV in preparation for nursing… This course was the perfect fit and pretty much stress-free (I was doing something I loved).” - Female, 16 (Year13 2017 survey)

VET students reported being much happier! When asked how they feel about their training or studies, 57% of VET students reported being ‘excited’, 51% said ‘happy’, 45% satisfied and 30% said they are ‘inspired’. No surprise then that more at-risk young people are choosing vocational education as their preferred training pathway.

And the winner is...

Both VET and university offer excellent training pathways to diverse and interesting careers. But VET graduates enjoy several advantages: on the job experience, higher likelihood of full-time employment upon graduation and balanced work-study options.