16 Aug 2015

A levels, degrees & Apprenticeships...

This week we've seen the annual publication of A level results and with it a lot of media commentary about the choices of young school leavers.    There has been a lot of discussion about there being more girls choosing university with more boys heading off to apprenticeships. we've had the usual 'A levels are too easy' and then interestingly we've also had a couple of blue chip businesses telling us how they're scrapping their previous insistence upon 3 Bs at A level (minimum) for entry to the business and they'll be looking at other verbal and written 'tests' instead.

I'm not sure where I stand on all of this.  I think my opinions are evolving and that's based on hearing on a daily basis what my clients are looking for, what they're feeding back to me in terms of candidate quality and also from my own day to day contact with candidates and seeing just how 'qualified' today's graduate really is in getting stuck into a job.  I've got some clients who only look at candidates from a top university, some clients who look at A levels being more of a 'definer' than anything else. I've got a couple of clients who look at the school that the candidate went to and then puts a weighting on their results.  A Manchester Grammar school pupil for example with 3Ds at A level would be shunned...but someone with 3Cs from a Winstanley College would be given an interview (the theory going that if you get 3Ds with all the extra funding and tuition that MGS has....you're either thick or lazy...). Sorry to be so blunt.

I was lucky. I think I was probably in the last couple of years of students who actually had a grant and some form of contribution to allow me to go to University. In my family - it was a real aspiration of my parents (both university graduates themselves) that their children would graduate and have a full choice of opportunities in the world.  I loved University, I had the best 3 years of my life there, discovered a lot about myself, learned how to be an adult and then loved it so much, I stayed on to do  a Masters....which actually taught me a lot too. It taught me that in spite of Chemistry being a brilliant degree, it wasn't what I was meant to be doing as a career.  I then had a narrow escape, 80% of Chemists become Accountants and I turned down an offer of a job with then Coopers & Lybrand...I took a role with a global chemical business as a Marketing Assistant...and that started me off in Marketing.  I was fortunate that my employer paid for me to do the Chartered Institute of Marketing Diploma which essentially brought me up to speed with all the theory and from that day forth, I learned on the job.  Had some great bosses, had some terrible bosses...learned from both varieties!

And today I own my own recruitment business and am my own boss.

Was four years studying chemistry a contributory factor to where I am today?  I think so.,  I am still an advocate of 'proper' academic subjects and think that I gained from the analytical and research focused methodology that I used in my degree and masters.  However, I didn't have to finish my degree in significant debt to do it.  If I was in the same position today, I'm not at all sure what I'd do.  In my day, a holiday job in a hotel (admittedly working 17 hour days), was enough to keep me in the black during term time (just) but that isn't realistic these days.

I think the answer to the whole 'is university worth it' question is very complex. It's quite dependent on what your vocation is.  I think for example (my own personal opinion again!), that if I wanted a career in PR.  I would not do a degree in PR.  I would either do a degree in English or Creative writing or Journalism.....(at a push) or try to secure a role post A level with an increasing number of PR agencies happy to take on A level school leavers and train them.  A degree in say, Graphic Design...you learn a lot and you will also gain work experience which is invaluable.  I don't think you need a degree to be a good PR Account Manager.  It won't do you any harm, but do you really want to get into that much debt for it when you could be earning from day one.  Similarly, if you want to be an Accountant, I'd look for a role with one of the big companies after A levels...If you know that's what you want to do, you should be earning straight away.  I understand it's not the same as it used to be - going away for 3 years and 'finding yourself.  I think you've got to weigh up the pros and cons and go from there.  I think too, young people have to be savvy about the choices they make in terms of course.  For example, Nottingham Trent have a Marketing course where 2 years are actually spent in industry....where you get paid!  So the first year is all taught and all theory...but the subsequent two are on the job.  Perfect. Plus they have links with all the big FMCG companies too.

If (like a lot of people), you really do want to go down the university route and you don't know what you want to be/do.  Do an academic subject at a decent university.  Don't go to Bolton to do Media Studies. Address the snobbery issue.  Apprenticeships are not just about plumbing and becoming an electrician. Lots of the big blue chip companies in the UK now are accepting A level candidates and it's definitely worth exploring all your options.  The one, final thing I would say is that having good A levels does open doors and give you choices.  No, it's not a disaster area if you have lower grades and have to re-set your expectations but at least giving those exams your absolute all, is definitely worth it to give you choices in later life.