For multiple generations the universal, accepted and all-encompassing advice given to teenagers and young adults is that:
“If you want to be successful then you need to go to university”
Throughout the last decades the world has undergone huge changes, lifestyles are dramatically different than they were years ago and technology has made previous beliefs and assumptions obsolete… and yet the above advice has barely waivered.
In this blog post I want to explore whether or not university is the best route to financial independence or if there are other underrated avenues that you can follow to achieve your goals. We will cover:
- University courses
- Online courses
- Entry level jobs with progression routes
- Comparison of time to reach financial independence
Unless you have been living under a rock, it is likely that you will know exactly what a university (or college for our American friends) course is. These are places of learning, teaching and knowledge and have been around since 859 AD when the University of Al Quaraouiyine first opened in Fez, Morocco, although the first university in the model of today is the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088.
Generally universities are a continuation of school and college but your learning is further streamlined into one or two particular subjects. For example, you may choose to complete a university course in maths, biology, business studies or mechanical engineering. During these course you will learn a huge amount about your particular subject and can expect the following:
- Lectures delivered by a professor
- Regular exams
- The award of a degree after successful completion
Depending on the number of year you study and the complexity of your course, you can earn different levels of ‘degrees’. A doctoral degree is the highest available and declares you as an expert in a particular field.
- Recognised throughout the world by virtually all employers. You could attend a university in your home country and then use the qualification to gain employment on the other side of the globe.
- Those with a degree have a higher average salary than those without
- University life can be hugely fun and enjoyable
- Likely to network with and meet an extensive range of people (friends, mentors and potential business partners)
- Will be well prepared for a specific career path
- Only (or most realistic) route to certain careers (doctor, dentist vet, teacher etc.)
- Forces you to move away from home (and likely parents) and develop life skills
- Large costs associated with university in the UK. You can expect to leave with thousands of pounds worth of debt which was used to pay for both tuition and living expenses. For those of us who do not have parents which will cover these costs you can expect loan repayments to hamper you for many years. In the UK you repay your loan by sacrificing 9% of your salary if you ean more than £2,274 a month. If you don’t earn above this then you do not need to repay. After 30 years the loan is forgiven regardless of how much you have repaid. More information can be found here. The average student loan debt upon leaving university in 2021 is:
- England – £45,000
- Wales – £28,000
- Northern Ireland – £25,000
- Scotland – £15,000
- Time commitment – You can expect to spend between 3 to 8 years studying depending on your degree type (undergraduate, masters, PHD) and program design (placement year at a company etc.). These are years that you will not spend working, earning and growing in a business/workplace.
- Lack of technical skills – Depending on your course you can expect the majority of your learning to be theoretical. This can be a handicap when you arrive in a workplace and realise you have spent little time applying it. A favourite saying amongst people in my workplace regarding some graduates is “they can tell you the square root of a jam jar, but they can’t take the lid off”.
- No guarantee of employment – Gone are the days that a degree means you’ll be employed by a business. This is especially the case for people who take degrees in subject with either minimal employment options or are oversaturated with students.
- Degrees no longer make you stand out – because so many people have now attended university and achieved a degree it will often take something new and different to make you stand out in a job application.
- You will be expected to learn in your own time – most students (2/3 according to study) are surprised by the lack of hours in which they actually spend attending lessons and lectures. At university you can expect there to be a bigger incentive on completing learning in your own time. Some courses have as little as 10 hours a week on campus.
University has been the standard path for many in the last number of decades but the prestige of a degree is no longer as powerful as it once was. However, on average, those with a degree still earn more than those without and they get to experience the huge fun of student life whilst making friends and contacts for life. Student debt is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in the UK and how this will affect you later in life must be carefully considered.
Personally, I feel university makes sense if you:
- Have a clear career goal which can only (or most easily) be achieved through a degree
- Complete a degree within a STEM subject at a reputable university (particularly Russell Group)
- Are desperate to get away from home and experience student life
Apprenticeships are available to those in the UK who are over the age of 16 and have left school. They are provided by an employer and the apprentice will get hands on experience of a particular job whilst studying, achieving a qualification and getting paid. During your apprenticeship you will:
- Learn and train for a specific job/role
- Get hands on experience of completing the above job/role in the real world (with a mentor/trainer)
- Study and achieve a qualification (generally at a college, university or through a third party training provider)
- Have a defined initial career path
- Receive employee benefits (holiday, pension, sick leave etc.)
- Achieve an apprenticeship qualification
As apprenticeships have become more and more popular different levels of qualification are being offered by potential employers looking to secure the best talent. Levels include:
Unfortunately apprenticeship still have a stigma surrounding them and many associate apprenticeships with students who:
- Are unable to get into university
- Can only work with their hands in a career like a builder or plumber
This has been slowly changing as more complex and structured apprenticeships (advanced, higher and degree) are being offered by prestigious employers. Part of this is due to the new apprenticeship levy being enforced by the government for companies operating within the UK. Essentially, it is an extra tax for large employers that they can only get back if they spend the money on apprenticeship related costs.
The levy forces employers who pay more than £3,000,000 in wages per year to spend 0.5% of their wage budget on apprentices and their training… or lose it.
Degree apprenticeships are a relatively new phenomenon and give the student the best of both worlds when it comes to their education. These students will be paid to study a degree by an employer with an almost guaranteed job at the end of it.
- No student debt to repay
- Often competitive salary
- High chance of job upon completion
- Knowledge and experience of the industry before undertaking their ‘real’ career
- Good benefits like paid holiday
- Recognised qualifications but the more reputable the employer the better
- Intermediate and advanced apprentices who excel may be offered additional qualification opportunities (foundation degree and above).
- Quality of your apprenticeship will be linked to the value your employer gives it and their input.
- Apprentices can be paid less than minimum wage. See here
- Professional growth is potentially limited – depending on the level of qualification received during your apprenticeship some opportunities may not be available to you
- Some employers use apprentices as cheap labour that they have no intention of hiring upon completion of the scheme
- The best (degree) apprenticeships are highly competitive and often attract lots of top talent
- Apprentices are not common in some industries and therefore may not be a viable path to your goal
- You have more responsibilities than a student – your employer is paying you and will demand you meet certain expectations
- You won’t get to experience the ‘university lifestyle’ which is important for many
- If your apprenticeship does not take you out of your comfort zone and you stay living at home you will not develop as many personal and life skills.
Apprenticeships are becoming more and more popular in the UK for good reason and are becoming a real option for many leaving school/college. If you choose the right apprenticeship then you can expect to gain most of the benefits of university whilst minimising the negatives. Recognised qualifications, no debt and being paid throughout are the norm for apprentices and should not be overlooked. Alongside this tradesman jobs generally earn far above the average in the UK.
Personally, I feel apprenticeships makes sense if you:
- Choose a higher or degree apprenticeship (instead of studying the same course at university)
- Want to work in a physical role as a tradesman (builder, plumber, electrician etc.)
- Choose an apprenticeship through a recognised/reputable company who value apprentices
An apprenticeship has served me incredibly well throughout my career and I am convinced that if I had gone to university (as I was advised to do) I would be much further behind in my journey to financial independence.
The above graph is the most recent data for apprenticeships I could find (2017) but with graduates generally come in earning around £5k more than ex apprentices we can estimate their average earnings are around £29k in 2021.
One of the biggest game changers in the world of education has been the rising popularity of online courses and programs. By using the power of the internet so many more education options are becoming available to those who have the least support and backing. Online courses vary greatly but I believe they can be split into two separate camps:
A traditional degree from an established brick and mortar university can be replicated by institutions such as the Open University. These establishments hold similar powers in the fact they will reward successful students with recognised qualifications (such as a degree) in the in the exact same way as a physical university. You can even receive a PHD through the Open University as well as a graduation ceremony.
The Open University really excels as competition for traditional learning because:
- You will have tutors and professors
- There are forums and online rooms where you can work with other students
- You will have contacts/experts to reach out to when struggling
- All the work, information and documents are available online
- Your studies are broken down into study weeks with each one having a selection of reading/recordings and interactive activities.
- You can complete either part-time or full time at your pace (suitable if you are completing alongside a full time career).
In 2019 I very nearly enrolled into the Open University with the intention of ‘topping up’ my nuclear engineering foundation degree (from my apprenticeship) to a full degree. I got as far as collating my current certificates and documents, choosing a course and speaking to my employer about it but eventually decided against it because:
- I travelled and backpacked for 4 ½ months which changed my outlook on the direction I wanted my life to head towards
- I knew it would be extremely difficult and take a large percentage of my free time
- I believed that there would be better and more efficient uses of my time
- My interests and enjoyments are not in nuclear engineering – I would have completed the degree solely because it related to my current job
- My employer refused to help pay or give me additional time to complete
My reasons for not completing an accredited program through the Open University were personal to me and therefore unlikely to be applicable to yourself. You should always consider your needs and wants before trying to replicate somebody else.
Unlike an accredited course these programs can be created by anybody and uploaded to various websites. Some of the most popular are:
On these websites are huge numbers of courses (Udemy has over 183,000) that you can choose from, purchase and complete. Due to the sheer volume of courses it is likely that you will be able to find one which covers the topic you are interested in. These courses can range from costs of around £10 to several hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
When choosing a course be sure to research reviews and ratings to check that the quality of the course is great. When you have such a large library to select from there is no need to settle for mediocre.
- Can be completed from any location with internet access
- Likely to end up with less student debt if you complete through the Open University compared to a regular university (course costs are roughly 2/3 and no need for expensive university accommodation)
- Receive the same qualification as from a regular university
- Can be completed in your spare time at your pace
- Potential to get your existing employer to help with costs or additional time off
- No admission requirements
- Fantastic and budget option for those who cannot afford university
- Many courses are packed full of information with hugely talented instructors
- A rating system means quality courses will be recommended to you and you can buy with confidence
- Many courses will give you the ability to contact the instructor for questions and advice
- Shows self-discipline and drive to potential employers
- Great to help you learn skills to transition from a job you do not like
- The training program will be more direct and targeted at a particular role/job
- Can be completed in your spare time at your pace
- Can be pricey for those living in countries with free university (Open University)
- Do not get the ‘university experience’ by completing an online course
- Unlikely to develop your personal and life skills
- If you do not choose a cohort based course you will not form relationships with others in your field
- Employers may not recognise the qualification – or rank it below a traditional one (degree)
- Some courses are of poor quality – researching and reading reviews is critical
Online programs/courses are changing the game and becoming hugely beneficial to many people. For those who cannot afford the full costs of university or physically attend these opportunities may be their best path to success.
The option to complete a highly tuned and tailored courses which target a specific outcome is great and ensures that the time spent is optimised. One example of this is completing the salesforce trailhead program which can lead directly to a highly lucrative career. Choose Fi have a webpage related directly to this here.
One of the biggest benefits of online programs/courses is that they can complement existing knowledge and qualifications. Already having a degree or apprenticeship should not stop you from continuing your personal development and learning, especially as the quality of these online courses gets higher and higher.
Entry level jobs with progression routes
Depending on your industry the most straightforward path to success may be to simply start. There are many careers out there which do not require extensive training and qualifications but instead rely on experience and personal skills.
For many of these roles there is the ability to progress either through:
Promotion – to a higher paid position
Sales numbers – The more you sell the more you are paid
For this strategy to work you need to ensure that you are employed by a company who recognise, encourage and nurture internal talent. These companies are often smaller (but not always the case) as you will likely work directly with the business owner who has the power to make these decisions. By working for a larger employer you may find yourself held back by bureaucracy as ‘catch-all’ rules may prevent your progression (if you don’t have a degree you can’t be employed in x position) regardless of your ability to complete the role.
If you excel in your entry level job and gain experience then often this can be rewarded by promotion. For jobs that require qualifications the employer may cover these costs with agreements for your future employment, e.g.
“Will pay for X qualification but you must remain with the company for 3 years afterwards or repay the costs”
This is common in industries like financial services where you may work as an assistant/planner (para planner) whilst studying and gaining additional qualifications, which then allow to progress into a position like a financial advisor.
For those of you who do not want to dive deeper into education but also do not want to be held back by earning potential then sales may be the answer. Thrive in this industry and you can expect to make bank and be a huge asset to your employer.
Do not expect your employer to care if you have a degree, a HND, A levels or even GCSE’s if you are consistently and regularly selling their product and generating profit for them. For this role experience will be incredibly important but so will constant personal development (books, free videos, courses etc.).
- No need to spend additional years of your life at university
- No debt
- Opportunity to work your way higher in companies who value your talent
- Potential to impress and ‘force’ your employer to offer you future training/qualifications which allow you to progress
- Earn decent money from a young age
- Potential to earn huge money from a sales position
- Develop and learn in a role which challenges you
- Minimal qualification to fall back onto
- Current rules in the UK now state that you need to remain in some sort of education until the age of 18 so you would need to be in at least part time education during your first two years.
- May choose an industry or employer who does not want to help you progress
- May end up in a role which is simple and monotonous
- Lose confidence to apply for other roles because you have no qualifications or relevant experience – especially if you need to support a family
- More likely to end in a low paying career
- Take out debt to “keep up with the Jones’” who may be earning more
- Relies on yourself to drive progression as there will unlikely be a designed ‘career path’ for you (as there may for a graduate).
The route of moving straight into a career (with part time education until you reach 18) can be a little risky but the payoff could be large. Personally I prefer the idea of spending additional time in full time education because it will allow you to develop, learn life skills and potentially reassess what you want from your life.
I would also feel a little exposed having no additional qualifications to back myself up in the event that my career advancement didn’t go as planned.
However if you know your path and further education will not help you get there then this is an avenue which could be explored.
Comparison of time to Reach Financial Independence
In the hope of trying to plot real (and example) career paths to FI I have undertaken the below case study. We have various careers which rely on different qualifications and we will see how they perform on the route to financial independence. I have tried my best to find average salaries (as of 2021) but these will no doubt change.
- Qualification required – Salesforce Trailhead program and completion of certification exam
- Average salary – £61,904
- Started at age 18 but may take longer depending on competency
- Go to www.choosefi.com/salesforce more information and details
- Qualification required – Apprenticeship
- Average salary – £51,2000
- Starting at age 20 and assuming saved £10,000 during apprenticeship
- Qualification required – Apprenticeship or training course
- Average Salary – £54,001
- Starting at age 22 due to restraints on when can apply for license and training requirements
- Qualification required – Degree and completion of medical school
- Average salary – £76,300
- Average medical student debt – £80,000
- Starting at age 27 due to years of training required
- Savings rate increased to 50% due to excess income
- Qualification required – Degree
- Average salary – £45,000
- Starting at age 22 due to time in education
- Average student debt – £45,000
Factory Line Worker
- Qualification required – None
- Average salary – £22,197
- Starting at age 18
- Savings rate reduced to 20% due to feasibility
Generic points to note
- All savings are invested at a 7% return
- Students loans/debt
- Not subtracted from net worth (due to method of paying back in UK)
- Costs have been subtracted from income for first 30 years (after which it is wiped out(neither in case study will repay before 30 years)
- The above roles will likely have different working hours
- Doctor – Often shifts and nights/weekends
- Self-employed electrician – Weekends and additional hours
- Train driver – Unsociable hours
- No additional career benefits are included (pensions etc.)
- No change for tax optimisation (for self-employed)
- Some of the above jobs have extremely high pay ceilings:
- Doctor – Become plastic surgeon
- Civil engineer – Contract in growing industries around the world
- Salesforce Specialist/manager
- The average salary is used for the entire career
- Starting salary will usually be lower
- Salary when experienced will often be much higher than average
Which career do you think performed best?
Some additional information to make sense of the above chart:
Age at which you can retire
Hitting financial independence of dependent above your spending requirements but for many people a net worth of £1 million (or £40,000 a year) would be enough. The above jobs would hit that number at the following ages (assuming you maintained the required savings rate):
- Salesforce – 41 years old (40% savings rate)
- Self-employed Electrician – 44 years old (40% savings rate)
- Train Driver – 47 years old (40% savings rate)
- Doctor – 48 years old (50% savings rate)
- Civil Engineer – 49 years old (40% savings rate)
- Factory Line Worker – 61 years old (20% savings rate)
Reference for salaries:
Salesforce Developer – https://uk.indeed.com/career/salesforce-developer/salaries
Self-employed Electrician – https://www.skillstg.co.uk/blog/how-much-do-electricians-earn/
Train Driver – https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Salaries/train-driver-salary-SRCH_KO0,12.htm
Doctor – https://uk.jobted.com/salary/doctor
Civil Engineer – https://uk.jobted.com/salary/civil-engineer
Factory Line Worker – https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Salaries/production-line-worker-salary
What I have learnt from completing this blog post is that the topic is hugely complex and although there is no right or wrong answer we can draw some key information.
- Those with degrees on average earn more than those without
- Those with apprenticeships on average earn more than those without
- Completing a degree (especially a PHD) will force you to start your career late and therefore miss out on many hugely important years of income and compound interest
- Trade jobs are grossly underestimated as a path to financial independence
- Completely a specific training program which focuses on a particular role (Salesforce) can potentially be the fastest route to wealth
- Careers like a train driver should be explored by somebody who does not want to attend university or complete an apprenticeship
- It is important to understand what you want to work towards early in your life to minimise years of minimal earning potential
The information I have found whilst researching this blog topic has backed up my initial opinion that
“University is not required to reach Financial Independence”
There are multiple ways to reach this objective and it is critical that you choose the one which suits you best regardless of what opinions around you are.
Lastly it is incredibly important to note that a career needs to be enjoyable to be sustainable and therefore choosing a path because it is the ‘shortest route to FI” is probably not the way to go. If you need a job that is flexible and can be completed nomadically then pick one that suits. If you love working with children, enjoy it every day and are happy to work for an increased number of years then you should go for that.
What careers do you think are the most underrated when it comes to reaching FI? Comment below.