26 July 2016 – 

Operating big boys toys

The issue of student loan debt is one of the topics often discussed on personal finance blogs. I’ve read many articles by bloggers who have gained their degrees either with no debt or have paid off the student loan within a few years of finishing university, which is commendable.

However, the reality is, that for many students and ex-students, their loan is going to be a financial burden around their neck for many years to come.

For clarity, I will use the term ‘university’ but this includes colleges, technical institutes and any other tertiary educational institute where students pay for their tuition.

I do understand that for many, there is an in-built rational that a university qualification is the way to a better job, improved career prospects, and increased financial gain over the course of one’s working life. And I don’t, for a minute, disagree that there are significant lifelong benefits to be gained from such a tertiary education.

However, this is only one of the ways to ‘get ahead’ in life. There are others which will provide a) getting paid to learn, and b) freedom from significant debt early in your working life.

Admittedly, for those who choose professional careers or highly skilled industries such as science, medicine or engineering, the lack of a suitable qualification probably won’t allow you a foot in the door. And I for one am quite pleased about that. The idea of people designing bridges or performing surgery with just a high school level of education would have some fairly serious implications.

And there is no doubt that some tertiary qualifications will lead to extremely high paying jobs in the future which should allow you to pay off your student debt quickly.

But the reality is that for many professions where a degree, or higher, is required, such as nurses, teachers, and many sciences, you are not going to be raking in the dosh from early on. So the debt to income ratio is going to be much higher than with other professions.

In saying that, student debt should not necessarily be seen as evil, but perhaps, according to Matt at Distilled Dollar,

“as something essential that carried us to the next phase of our lives. …the mountain of debt we accumulated during undergrad, was the spark that helped us shape up.”

Read more at his great blog here.

 But what about those of us who aren’t inclined to follow the more academic path?

I along, along with many of my friends, had no interest in further studies after finishing high school. We just wanted to get out there, start work, and begin earning some money.

I began an apprenticeship with the Post Office as a Lineman. You know, the guys who climb up telephone poles, dig holes in your front lawn, hook up your house to a phone etc.

Although some of my friends took on fairly low-level labouring type jobs (a couple of them have gone on to become very successful businessmen), many of us began apprenticeships as motor mechanics, builders, glaziers, and of course me as a ‘Liney’.

So if you, or someone close to you, is nearing the end of their high school life, what should they consider doing at least for the next few years? Go to university or begin an apprenticeship?

For some, like me, it was a pretty easy decision. I’d had enough of the education system (or was it the other way around?). I didn’t feel academically inclined towards tertiary education, and was keen to get a job where I could learn some practical skills. The idea of a weekly pay packet was pretty attractive too.

Once graduating as a fully trained tradesperson, you have skills that are valuable to an employer, as well as other practical and life skills, such as punctuality and team work. Many tradies go on to build their own successful businesses.

Compare this to the high levels of graduate student unemployment especially around the start of the business year. There are often many similarly qualified graduates vying for the same jobs. And, unless they have managed to gain some industry skills during their study, they’ll often have plenty of knowledge but no skills to offer employers.

And along with new found unemployment, most have a pretty hefty student debt that they need to start repaying.

But don’t assume working as an apprentice is all beer and skittles.

You’ll Have To Work Hard – Like all worthwhile things in life, you’re going to have to work hard to get your theory and practical work completed. This means that you might miss out on going out with your friends all the time because you’ll have to work a full working day every and then do night school or weekend classes as well.

Low Pay – As I said before when you do an apprenticeship you get paid to learn, which is great! However, don’t think that you’re going to be on a brilliant wage. Apprenticeship wages tend to be pretty low so it’s important not to have really high expectations in that respect. Remember your employer is helping you develop your skills, so you won’t be paid a full wage until you’re fully qualified.

You’ll Start From The Bottom – When you start your apprenticeship you need to learn the basics. You might find that some of your tasks are a tad boring to start with. But that’s just a fact of life. Everyone has to do jobs that can be a bit mind-numbing at times but once you’ve learnt those skills you’ll move on to better things.

Competition Is Tough – Some apprenticeships are in high demand. If you really want to get into an apprenticeship you need to make sure you have put some work into your application.

I certainly have no regrets starting my working life as an apprentice. Not only was it a lot of fun but I worked with some great people too, as well as learning many skills that I still use today, such as using a chainsaw safely, laying concreting and driving a truck.

In time, I did move onwards and upwards from that initial hands-on work and eventually moved into the corporate world where many of my peers had degrees. However, through my own hard work and industry knowledge, I worked and competed with them on an level playing field.

This is only my opinion on one of the alternatives to heading for university after leaving high school. Don’t think for a moment that I am not knocking anyone who has gone down the tertiary education path.

However, There are many paths to getting an education and some people are just not ‘meant’ for higher education, myself included. And the world’s always going to need skilled tradesmen to build your houses, fix your cars, and build the things that the engineers design.


Who here also took the mud, blood, sweat, and beers path in their working lives? How many of you with your fancy, schmancy [;-)] degrees sometimes wished for a more get-your-hands-dirty type job? Go on, share your tales here in the comments?

12 thoughts on “Getting paid to learn – A worthwhile alternative to student debt”

  1. Yes! European schools let kids decide what track to take-towards college or vocational schools. Trying to push everyone into a college degree is an awful idea. How many people leave college and still can’t find a job-or never work in a field that actually uses the degree they earned? And other countries encourage things like taking time off-a gap year-to figure things out, because at 18 who knows what they want. I went the college route and it worked for me, and my brother went the vocational route and loves it. I think encouraging apprenticeships as an option is great!

    1. Hi Staci, thanks for dropping by and commenting. I’m still amazed at how many school leavers have this notion that the only way to get ahead in life is to go to uni. There are plenty of other vocations that don’t need that amount of commitment that a degree entails. Not for a moment am I knocking those that do but it’s not the be all and end all. Especially, as you say, how many school leavers actually know what they want to do for a career. And taking on an apprenticeship first up doesn’t mean that you can’t get to uni later on.

  2. Unfortunately universities have become big business these days and the goal seems to be churning out students for profit regardless of industry demand. This means that the requirements to enter uni has dropped and it is now no longer a place for the brightest students but more for anyone that is prepared to pay for the privilege. As a result we now have the situation where many graduates can’t find jobs due to flooding the job market. Globalisation also means that many of the uni type jobs (pretty much any job on a computer) can be done cheaper in another country. Similarly, the world has changed and they’ve made it almost a requirement for vocations such as nursing and pilots to now go down the uni route. It’s a crazy world where kids putting up silly youtube videos are making huge money. It’s a vicious circle because there is no incentive to innovate. You can already see the fall off in interest for the more challenging STEM subjects because the reward for the effort is just not there. I’m not so sure it is so easy to get an apprenticeship these days as there are not many tradesman willing to take on apprentices. On the flip side, the entrepreneurs can make big money without going down the traditional route. I’ve already mentioned youtube, but also in designing apps and harnessing the global reach of the internet which often doesn’t require any formal qualifications. It is certainly interesting times and a very different future for our kids. Not to take anything away from your post but it’s probably difficult to relate to our own career paths as jobs continue to evolve that don’t exist back in our day.

    1. Hi there WTPF and thanks for your comment. You are partly correct that I did write this article from the perspective of someone who did his apprenticeship 30 years ago and I do know things have changed. You are dead right, there are a lot less companies taking on apprentices now although I knwo that both in Australia and New Zealand, the Governments have been pushing incentives to get young people into training and apprenticeships as there are significant trade skill shortages in both countries.

      And I totally agree with you about universities operating more and more as businesses by churning out graduates no matter what the demand is. As long as you can pay your fees, you’re pretty well in the door. Thanks for your comment. I’ve been enjoying your posts too.

  3. I love this post Martin, there are a lot of other great paths other than college degrees. I know a number of folks who went on to college, racked up a bunch of expense and debt and ended up after just a couple years realizing that path wasn’t for them.

    I, on the other hand, had summer jobs that were very laborious and knew I wasn’t cut our for it which motivated me to go the college path. One summer I worked in a paper plant and received about a hundred paper cuts… That was too much for my delicate hands.

    1. Ahhhhhh, you’re too soft Green Swan. Paper cuts???

      Actually, my brother went to college and got a science degree which he’s never used. Well, not as a formal qualification anyway. he did his degree, decided it wasn’t for him and joined the army. Now he’s flying commercial planes which he loves.

      I’m sure having a degree didn’t hurt his chances of landing (pun not intended) the job he wanted but it took four years of his life and a bunch of debt to figure it out. Thanks for dropping by and sharing your story about the paper cuts lol.

  4. I worked a few manual labor jobs while I was in school – have a ton of respect for the people that do that on a day in – day out basis. It is hard work

    Some days I wish I had a more hands on type job, then iInsee people working outside in -10 and put those thoughts to rest

    Have watched many people attend school and realize it’s not for them after 2-3 years and go back and start apprentice type work – images it a lot harder on themselves since they are battling debt on the lower starting wages

    1. Hi there AE, I have to admit I was never a great fan of the ‘manual’ part of manual labour as I was never the fittest bloke out there and the first few days of physical work use to wreck me. But you do get use to it. I have worked in -4, or so, tempretures but -10 and below just doesn’t do it for me. Especially if it was snowing.

      Early on in my apprentice days I always had ambitions to get off the tools at some stage. I was often working with guys who were as old as my father (or older) and I decided I didn’t want keep doing this at their age. You know….really old lol.

      So that’s what got me motivated to move up and eventually into the corporate world which had its benefits but I always missed getting my hands dirty so eventually gave up the corporate life and went back to wearing the hi-viz and hard hat again until I retired earlier this year when I decided I had had enough, full stop. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Hey Martin,

    I completely agree with what you’re getting at – there are many paths that do not have to lead to any debt at all. I’m kind of in both camps, or neither camp. I didn’t go to university, I started work in a career-job at 18 and learned as I went – so no debt there. But now (you may have seen) I’m starting further education (but paying in cash) and we’re not going to get any debt there either. Hopefully I’m getting the best of both worlds 🙂


    1. Totally understand where you’re coming from Tristan. Not only have you got a heap of work experience and life skills under your belt, but now consolidating that and upskilling to move on to the next phase in your career. That’s very much what I did. Although I didn’t get a degree, I did study for several diplomas and industry-specific professional qualifications which I needed to move up the ladder. So I’m not saying my career moves were all dumb-luck and having a friendly smile. Not at all. Like you, I took a path that paid me from day-1 and got trained without taking on debt to pay for it. Definitely the best of both worlds.

  6. Everyone’s path to success is different. That’s what I love about developed countries. There’s so many opportunities and ways to get ahead and not a set path. I got a degree from a prestigious university but I decided to attend college because my tuition was basically paid for by scholarships. I think I got to a higher position than if I hadn’t gone to college but I’ll never know and I’m always looking to work to get to where I want to go. Great post and thanks for sharing your story!

    1. Hi there Finance Solver and thanks for dropping by. You’re right, there are plenty of opportunities whether you attend the top colleges or the ones that fit your budget. At the end of the day, hard work and dedication to what you’re doing will also take you far in life won’t it.

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