Choosing what you’re going to do when you finish school is a crazy difficult thing to do when you don’t really know much about your options and you haven’t had a chance to test any of them out. It’s like choosing what to eat from a massive menu at a restaurant you’ve never been to, except this decision could affect the rest of your life, not just the next two hours.

There’s a million different options coming at you and not a whole lot of info about them. You’re mainly just going off what your parents or your teachers have told you, and while they’ve probably got the best of intentions at heart, their opinions are just that… opinions. They have a bias, and even if they don’t mean it to, the facts can get a little skewed.

So, we just wanna get a few things straight, particularly when it comes to choosing between university and vocational education and training (VET). Of course, which way you want to go is entirely up to you and there’s no right or wrong answers – we just want to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting yourself in to.

Everyone pretty much gets the gist of uni, but VET is one post-school option that’s often overlooked. VET is most commonly associated with apprenticeships and trades, but there’s actually hundreds of different types of qualifications you can get in just about every industry under the sun. On top of trade qualifications like carpentry, engineering and plumbing, you can also train and work in sectors such as fashion, virtual reality, animal care, game design and so, so much more.

We recently found out that 75% of students simply don’t even consider doing an apprenticeship after school. This is kinda strange, because if you look at the statistics, going down the VET pathway starts to look pretty appealing… but we’ll let you guys decide that for yourselves. Here’s the breakdown:

Employment Opportunities

Obviously, we have to generalise a little here because it really depends on the specifics of what degree you’re talking about and what VET course you’re talking about. That said, when it comes to statistics on who’s getting jobs, VET graduates seem to have the upper hand.

Consider this: 78% of VET graduates get employed immediately after completing their apprenticeship or traineeship while just 39% of uni graduates between 20 and 25 get employed immediately after graduating. This means that at the end of their training, VET grads are twice as likely to find a job than uni grads.

While university students are often expected to take on unpaid internships and compete with new technologies and offshore jobs, there’s a national skills shortage in hundreds of different trades. Essentially, this means that industries and employers are actively looking for carpenters, electricians, mechanics, cooks and hairdressers.

Cash Money

Again, the cash factor really depends on which industry you’re studying in. But when you average it all out, the starting salaries are very similar. VET graduates earn an average of $56,000 a year once they finish their qualifications, while uni graduates earn an average of $54,000, so wages are only slightly better for VET grads.

The big difference is in how much debt they’re left with. While a carpenter’s apprentice will earn an average of $129,888 over the course of their four-year apprenticeship, a university graduate will be left with an average of $20,250 of debt. This means that when it’s all over, the apprentice is about $100,000 ahead of the uni grad. In theory, these numbers will even out (and in some cases reverse) over the course of a lifetime but it would seem that VET grads who complete a paid apprenticeship are getting a hell of a head start.

Happiness and Mental Health

Happiness is probably the hardest factor to quantify because there are so many different parts of life that affect peoples’ happiness and mental health.

One thing we do know is that VET training tends to rate pretty well on the happiness scale. When asked to describe how they felt about VET training, 57% of students used the word “excited” and 51% of students used the word “happy”.

University students, on the other hand, tended to respond less positive – 62% said they had considered dropping out, primarily because it wasn’t enjoyable, because they didn’t know what they wanted to do or because it was too hard.

However, it’s important to note that in the workforce, tradespeople are much more at risk of mental health issues and have higher rates of suicide than white-collar workers. Luckily, the Aus Government has introduced a new apprenticeship mentoring scheme that aims to support new apprentices through their training.

On the university side, health professionals are also notably at risk.

Por que no los dos?

The other major misconception out there is that these two pathways are mutually exclusive. The reality is that both university and VET have their pros and cons and you might want to think about leveraging the best of both worlds. It’s common for someone who finishes their apprenticeship to head into university to upskill their theoretical knowledge, just as it’s common for uni graduates to upskill their practical knowledge by completing a VET qualification.

At the end of the day though, your happiness in the workplace probably has more to with choosing the kind of work that’s interesting and rewarding to you. Ultimately, you know how you like to learn – if you prefer practical, hands-on experience then VET can provide this kind of training, whereas university is great for those who like to learn theoretically.

There are literally millions of things that you could do with your life – university and VET are just a couple of the options that could help start your career. This article was made in partnership with the Federal Department of Education and Training’s ‘Real Skills for Real Careers’ initiative. If you’re keen to see what VET qualifications are on offer, jump over to the My Skills site here.