Innovation challenge, national apprenticeship week, Justina Blair

By Justina Blair

Deciding to choose a degree-apprenticeship route over the traditional university pathway was undoubtedly the best decision I’ve made and one my future-self will thank me for.

Modern culture places enormous value in university degrees and celebrates them as one of life’s top achievements. In doing so we have created a culture that normalises taking on debt.

It is often assumed as fact that a university degree will improve your career prospects, but ask yourself this – why are there hordes of university graduates working in low-end jobs?

I attended an all girls Catholic school, and while apprenticeships were mentioned by the careers’ department, it was clear that a university degree was the standard measure of success.

I was a high-achiever at school and my A-level grades were what you might expect from a top university student.

It soon became obvious that my career advisor was suggesting that pursuing a university degree would be the right path for someone like me.

Perhaps this is the viewpoint of past generations who wholeheartedly subscribed to the belief that a university degree is a launchpad for a successful career.

On the contrary, employers I have spoken with seem to value experience equally if not more than a degree!

A significant number of  young people seem to go to university with the common misconception that their degree will be a golden ticket that will land them their dream job.

There are very few who seem to be aware that university degrees are often considered the bare minimum and that employers place equal value on experience.

So my question to those of you reading this that are considering university is simple: Why not find a way to meet the criteria your future employer is looking for?

These are the questions I asked myself while filling out my UCAS application, spending hours perfecting my personal statement and reviewing various university courses.

When it comes to academia, I excel, but being book-smart is like being a pawn on a chess board without the hands-on-experience of a queen.

Just over a year ago, apprenticeships were mainly focused on vocational subjects, but more recently an array of STEM apprenticeships have become available.

This was all well and good but I had reached my first obstacle – deep down I still wanted a degree.

With a three year undergraduate degree costing £27,750 plus 6.2% interest for every year you do not pay the FULL amount back, I felt very uncomfortable at the prospect of taking on such an enormous debt.

It seems the wording of this has changed to: “RPI plus 3%” RPI is currently 5.4%.

Even though you do not start paying this loan back until you are earning over £25,000, that interest is adding up meanwhile, and I did not want to be earning lower than that amount.

Was it justifiable to allow an 18-year-old to commit to such a large debt? To others this topic has been normalised. But for me debt is debt.

I then met with the managing director of an engineering consultancy in the city and secured myself a five year degree apprenticeship in environmental science.

This company would completely fund my degree, I’d attend university one day a week and work for them gaining that pivotal experience. But I was still not satisfied.

Was this a career that would allow me to excel as a female in business?

Back on the search, I came in contact with LTSB (Leadership Through Sport and Business) a social mobility charity that prepares and supports bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into meaningful roles at blue-chip level companies.

They were advertising a digital innovation degree apprenticeship with Natwest which immediately stood out to me but I was slightly nervous about applying as I am a BAME female.

My apprehension soon dissipated as I enrolled in LTSB’s bespoke preparation bootcamp where I gained a lot of useful experience and learned how to talk to CEO’s within a professional setting.

It was the perfect time to come out of my comfort zone, and be around others from different age groups, all in preparation for working life.

Here I am, four months later undergoing my four year degree apprenticeship in technology and innovation, earning while I learn.

With the help of my mentor, who LTSB introduced me to, I have had support at every career crossroad throughout the last year.

I am very grateful for LTSB who have made the transition between adolescence and adulthood a lot less nerve-wracking. With their assistance I secured a job working at a bank led by a female CEO, Alison Rose, I’m being paid the same as my male peers, and I am more confident than ever that I can navigate my career beyond my four year degree.

Having a degree brings me security but for others, a level four apprenticeship could suit better – both are effective pathways to set yourself up for a successful career.

An apprenticeship in tech finance was an attractive prospect for me as I saw the industry as a growth sector and thought the position would develop my ability to be change ready.

Unlike my peers at full-time university, I am already improving my employability; I have the confidence and ability to speak to professionals and I’ve already begun developing a professional network.

A degree-apprenticeship offers you both workplace experience and a degree, so why wouldn’t you take advantage of such a great opportunity and earn while you learn.

Choosing an apprenticeship over full-time university helped me gain confidence, independence and respect and it can do the same for you too.

Justina BlairAbout the author

Justina Blair is a digital innovation technology apprentice at NatWest. She has previously debated in parliament and is undertaking a Bsc in Digital and Technology Solutions.