The question of whether skills or experience are more valuable to entry-level applicants trying to break into the labor market is a very old and complicated one. Degrees have been becoming increasingly popular over recent years, but this may not necessarily be because they are more intrinsically valuable for young people trying to get their first job.
Universities have become more profit-driven and, therefore, better at marketing themselves. They are selling a product, investing more money in marketing and publicity campaigns than they previously did, which may account for some of the upsurge in young people seeking to enter the job market via the academic route.
Another element to consider is that as degrees become more commonplace, the value of the currency of a degree depreciates, as the laws of supply and demand apply to labor as much as they do to any other commodity.
This devaluation of the currency of a degree may give the advantage to those with industry experience. Plus, we’re all familiar with the idea of a graduate fresh out of an undergraduate degree program who has no idea how to do the job and is indeed totally unprepared for the realities of the job they find themselves in due to their lack of practical experience.
Then again, depending on which sector of the engineering industry you want to work in, you may need a degree in order to get licensed. Additionally, going to college is more than just about getting a degree; it’s about meeting people, self-discovery, gaining in-depth insights on the theoretical concepts that engineering is based on.
So, here’s the eternal question: which route is right for you?
There is no right or wrong way to break into the industry, a lot is going to depend on your personal situation, your ambitions, your preferences, your strengths, and your weaknesses. For instance, you’re going to have to ask yourself if you enjoy academic study, or if you more animated by the actual nuts-and-bolts of hands-on engineering work?
If you didn’t enjoy or struggled with academic subjects in high school, especially subjects such as maths and physics, which involve lots of numbers and quantitative data, then the academic route is probably not for you.
But do not let that disillusion you at all. There are a lot of internships in the industry, allowing you to get on the job experience while continuing your training, similar to the way other sectors invest in work experience programs for entry-level applicants. And, as mentioned above, there are numerous advantages to going down a more vocational route; some employers may even find applicants with industry experience far more attractive than those with degrees.
Different jobs in the industry require different skill sets
Electrical engineering is probably the easiest sector to break into without a degree. Another thing to bear in mind is that, just because you opt for an apprenticeship first, there’s nothing to stop you from enrolling on a degree program later on in your career, if you decide that is what you want.
But if you want to become licensed as an engineer or work in a highly-regulated sector, such as civil engineering, you’ll likely need a minimum of an engineering degree. If you like the idea of planning projects, of coming up with the overall ideas and leaving the practicalities of implementing those visions to a different set of people, this may well be a good option for you to consider.
Before you elect for this route, however, you need to be honest with yourself. If you didn’t do well at maths and physics in high school, you may find yourself poorly equipped to study engineering in an academic context.
To conclude, there are compelling arguments that support choosing either of these routes. In order to make the right decision, you are going to have to determine what your own values, strengths and ambitions are as an engineer.
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