October 23, 2019
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Better to get a real job than a useless degree

APPRENTICESHIPS are making a comeback, I read. I hope that is true. It would be a victory for common sense and might mark a turning of the tide which has seen degrees and diplomas devised for almost every profession and trade, including my own.

It wasn’t always so. My first job was an apprenticeship, although it wasn’t called that. I was apprenticed to the editorial staff of a weekly newspaper in County Down.

I was paid almost nothing for the first six months and my wages then rose by annual increments over the next three years, reaching senior level when I was 21.

During that time I learned the trade. I covered courts and councils, funerals and football. I learned to read the proofs, make the tea and drive the van.

I didn’t go to university and neither did anyone else on the staff of the County Down Spectator.

My editor, the redoubtable Annie Roycroft, would not have dreamt of employing a graduate. She had nothing against further education – but by the time students had finished college they were too old for her purposes, having spent three or four years learning things that were of no value to a local newspaper.

In the late 1960s very few people went to universities which were almost the only form of higher education available.

It wasn’t a question of ability – I went to a grammar school and had reasonable marks in the northern equivalent of the Leaving Cert. Nor was cost an issue for, unlike today, the UK system was then very generous to undergraduates.

But universities offered no help to me in pursuing the career I had chosen. The same went for most of my friends. Universities were for would-be doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like. If you didn’t need what they taught, you didn’t go there.

Today, it seems as if almost everyone goes from secondary school to some form of higher education. Hundreds of courses have been flagged by the CAO over the last couple of weeks.

When they have achieved their degree many students will take a further course, perhaps do a Masters, maybe even a PhD. They will be well into their twenties when they go looking for a job and, for many employers, they will have nothing more to offer than I did at the age of 18.

Their expectations will be higher, however. They will expect more pay and to be given more responsible tasks, although they won’t be equipped for the work and, therefore, will not deserve the pay.

I sound like some antediluvian relic, I know. But I believe there is a real problem here. Because, contrary to impression, not everyone does go on to third level – and those who do not are at a disadvantage in the labour market. They are being kept out of jobs, for which they may be ideal, because they lack qualifications that are completely unnecessary for those jobs.

It is now next to impossible to get into journalism without a degree, which must be keeping a lot of talented but non-academic youngsters out of the business.

Other trades are also suffering. I spent a little time last week with a niece and some of her friends who were all heading for third level colleges. One wanted to be a chef, another fancied working as a tour guide. Neither of these careers should need a third level qualification but there are courses, with silly names, tailored to suit both. And soon, no one will get these jobs unless they have a meaningless certificate from one of these courses.

Apprenticeships let young people learn on the job and earn a little money at the same time. They don’t suit every line of work but they suited me and I will be very happy if they really do make a comeback.

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