University or School of Life?

Can you imagine a 50-year-old with more than 30 years experience in the workforce taking advice from a wet-behind-the-ears teenage career counsellor? Of course they wouldn’t. After all, they were in the workforce long before the kid was even a twinkle in his old man’s eye

Yet many people “choose” their careers at a young age, only to face the prospect of retraining late in life. A decision which sounded good at the time was followed through to a point of no return.

By the time they realised the error of their ways, too many years had been invested and it became hard to leave because they’d have to start again from scratch.

The danger of making a life-altering decision when you’re 18 is that you’re, well, 18.

When I graduated from high school the only lofty goals I had were attending nightclubs as much as possible and mastering the art of the parallel park for my Ps.

This week, high school graduates received their first-round offers for university places.

Continued education

Researchers tell us that this generation will be the most educated in history, with the majority undertaking some form of tertiary study. The driving force behind this rush to higher education is typified by the front page of last week’s papers. One read: “Show us the money: workers cash in on skills crisis” another was “Vegemite maker exports jobs to China”.

As the working world becomes more competitive, young people are increasingly pushed towards university, which in some cases leads to students choosing a career before they’ve even left the confines of the classroom.

One of the driving motivators of completing university is to get the requisite letters after your name, hopefully ensuring a future dining on something better than dog food.

Raising the bar

For many, a good education is the passport to employment and a steady income. The problem however, is that as higher education becomes increasingly commonplace, the bar has been shifted higher to the point where nearly everyone has some sort of qualification. Many a postgraduate student has philosophised over the eternal question, “Would you like fries with that?”

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why in the last three years applications for government funded (HECS) university places have declined by 8.7 per cent.

Some would argue that the increased cost of higher education has been the overriding factor in the drop in demand.

Learning at a cost

While the average Aussie dances with debts that would rival the revenues of a Third World country, many students must baulk at the costs of university education, with some courses now costing more than $8000 a year.

With the Federal Government increasingly leaning towards a user pays system, these costs will increase over time. HECS may be an income-contingent loan, but stripped bare, it’s debt that will be re-valued upwards each year to take into account increases in the cost of living – and it must be repaid throughout your working life.

The latest Federal statistics show that our national HECS debt tops $13 billion – of which the average graduate owes $10,000. According to the GCA Graduate Destination Survey, 81 per cent of bachelor degree graduates in 2005 found full-time work within four months of graduating, although it’s not known if these positions were directly related to the student’s university studies.

The survey also found that median annual graduate starting salaries were $40,000, with a percentage of this income taken to repay HECS.

Contrast this to the starting salaries for many tradespeople who are reaping the benefits of a booming economy and massive skills shortages. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has warned this may be “the worst on record”, especially in resource-rich states like Western Australia that are riding high on the mining boom.

Increasingly, companies have been looking offshore to fill the massive gap for skilled workers.

School’s out

A school leaver who starts an apprenticeship will often get paid while learning on the job. She will be offered good pay once qualified, and she and her peers face lower rates of unemployment than some university graduates – all without accumulating a HECS debt.

Entrepreneurial businessman Graeme Hart’s resume shows that he is a qualified panel beater with plenty of experience in the trade – although with a (self-made) billion dollar empire, it’s unlikely you’ll find him bashing out many dents these days.

The truth of the matter is that anyone can make a considerable amount of money if they’re enterprising enough, regardless of their occupation or education. There is always a market for the very best in any industry.

Leading by example

Richard Branson quit school when he was 16 and he turned out all right, and I’m pretty sure Gerry Harvey didn’t have to get a degree in applied finance and investment before his bankers would allow him to make his first billion.

The two don’t always go hand in hand. I’ve met plumbers who are far wealthier than doctors or lawyers.

Even though I’m a university graduate, I firmly believe that the letters after my name are no insurance policy for prosperity. My confidence (and cash) comes from being engaged in a field that I’m passionate about and giving all that I have each and every day.

After a few years in the real world, most will tell you that the most important education comes from gaining the confidence to have the ability to back your own judgment and following through with hard work.

Tread your own path!