The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{July 4, 2011}   I just don’t know what to do with myself

For the last 10 weeks, every Tuesday we’ve had a sixth form student visiting the office for work experience. I’ve very much taken her under my wing, and have found her things to do, arranged meetings & work shadowing with various different departments, helped her improve her CV, and talked to her about what she wants to do after her A-levels.
Initially she came to us through the IChemE as she wanted to do a degree and either be a Chemical Engineer or a Teacher.

10 weeks on and she’s now far more aware of the massive amount of different options that are available within engineering. That means that in many ways we’ve actually made her decision more difficult, but at least she’s more likely to make a decision that is right for her.

As a learner who enjoys real life context & getting stuck into the world of work, as one of several siblings, and as one of the first cohort to be subject to the £9000 university fees, one of the decisions she’s now looking at is whether going straight into uni after her A-levels is actually the best option. With such large costs for university, and with enjoying work based learning it may not be, so we’ve spent alot of time discussing the pros and cons of apprenticeships vs degrees. It has been a learning curve for me too, since I did a degree and never even considered qualifying in any other way. With that in mind, before I get into the pros & cons that we ending up discussing, here are a few disclaimers:

1) There is no wrong choice. Both apprenticeships amnd degrees are superb qualifications but as with many things in life you will only get as much out of them as you are willing to put in.

2) I am by no means the fount of all knowledge when it comes to qualifications and career paths, there are some brilliant resources on the internet though and these are a few I would recommend:
The UK government’s apprenticeship website
Cogent’s careers website
The ECITB’s careers website
Magasine & report articles such as page 10 in here

3) Apprenticeships and full time degrees straight out of school are not the only options. You might also want to consider a Year in Industry, or an Engineering Training Programme; National Grid offer a particularly good one. Some other large engineering companies offer similar things.

So, those resources & disclaimers aside, what conclusions did we come to? What are the advantages of each? Well in my opinion:

Degrees (done full time straight from A-levels): Generally a faster means of getting into engineering management, with a higher starting salary, pretty much the only way to get into engineering academia & research, particularly good if you like academic classroom learning, reading & reseach. Some companies hold degree qualified engineers in much higher regard than those with apprenticeships. It’s also much easier/quicker to become a chartered engineer, especially if you do a Masters degree.
But it’s expensive, you start learning later, your knowledge is less directly related to what you will be doing in your career and you will have to prove your practical knowledge to colleagues who have a greater respect for apprenticeships

Apprenticeships:You start younger, and you earn while you learn (albeit not very much initially), after doing an apprenticeship with a company many of them will sponsor you through a degree part time so you can get into most of the same job roles as any other graduate (though generally a few years later) , many companies have more respect for engineers with the practical background that an apprenticeship gives and you wont have student debt. Particularly good if you prefer contextual/hands on learning. However, you may have to prove your more academic skills to degree qualified colleagues, and some companies hold degrees in higher regard.

I think if I had my time again I’d still want to end up degree qualified, but I think I’d also like to have gained a bit more practical knowledge…so perhaps I would have done a year in industry or one of the engineering training programmes. Equally though, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve achieved & how I’ve gotten to where I am, so perhaps doing a degree straight out of uni was the best option for me after all.


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