An Apprenticeship in FIRE-Starting

I was listening to Jonathan and Brad on their ChooseFI podcast all about coding this week and found it really interesting.    They were interviewing Ryan Carson from Treehouse, an online coding tuition course website, who considers coding to be a trade rather than a professional qualification achieved at college/University.   TreeHouse originated from a desire to make coding education available and financially accessible to more people, and students can try it for free before committing to a course.   One point made during the podcast was that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted that there will be 1.4 million new jobs in tech in the US by 2020, and only 400,000 will be filled by college graduates, so presumably the positions will be taken by those who’ve either studied elsewhere or topped up their qualifications somewhere other than college.

Fingers crossed Little Fu#1 will benefit from a similar scenario in the UK after he found college and University wasn’t for him right now.

He attended our local grammar school and was planning to continue in the Sixth Form there to do A-levels.  At the time he’d no idea of a career goal, or the path to it, so he chose subjects he’d enjoyed at GCSE.  Things started well, but by Christmas, the sheer workload of A-levels started to take its toll, and, at the suggestion of school (who were very supportive) he dropped one of his four chosen A-levels.

For us as parents, though, this made us think deeply about whether he was doing the right thing at all.   We had visions of him completing first A-levels and then a degree but not really for any particular purpose, other than to follow what his peers were doing.

In this day and age, everyone seems to go to University.  There seems to be a prescribed route to life that all teens follow – Duke of Edinburgh awards, GCSEs, A-levels, University – then, fingers crossed, a job.   But often enough the degree title doesn’t match the job afterwards at all.   Research by the Sutton Trust, a foundation who research social mobility, found that almost half of graduates actually end up working in non-graduate jobs.

Indeed, Mr Fu and I both have cousins in their twenties who have excellent degree classifications.  They couldn’t find anything in their chosen field (graphic design and interior design) so both have jobs in something entirely different.   The skills learnt at university may be used to fall back on in the future, but a few years on from qualifying neither are working in that field at all.

So we decided it may be better for FU#1 to pursue a different route.  Soon after he dropped that fourth A-level we started to attend Apprenticeship Fairs with him.  Engineering looked appealing to me and Mr Fu, with starting rates of over £15k per year, but it wasn’t Little Fu#1’s thing at all.   He was more into computer-related things, so he applied for (and to our delight got) an apprenticeship at a creative events agency, designing and making websites for their events.  He sat his AS levels that Easter (2016) and left straight afterwards.

He’s never looked back.  He loves both the work and the fun young team he’s working with.  His part-time college-based apprenticeship training has been both thorough and interesting and he’s achieved distinctions galore.  Having successfully completed level 3 of his apprenticeship in software development he’s now halfway through level 4, and has graduated to a minimum wage, too, rather than an apprenticeship rate.

At work his performance appraisals are really good, so all being well when he finishes his apprenticeship they’ll take him on permanently.

So his path to FIRE is already underway, and he’s only 19 years old.

As Ryan from Treehouse said in his ChooseFI interview – for a skilled job, such as coding, landing a job is more dependent on a portfolio than a degree, and an apprentice has three or four more years of experience than a college graduate in a working environment.  They’ve turned up for work on time every day, kept up with workplace banter and most importantly, are now skilled in the art of making coffee and tea for senior colleagues (or, in Little Fu#1’s case, has enjoyed the perks of a workplace that encourages duvet days and Fun Fridays, is skilled in the art of making beverages using the uber-fancy coffee machine in the office and has lots of experience in petting the office dog – yes, really!)  In all seriousness, he and other apprentices have been learning on the job all that time, alongside theory and skills-based learning part-time at college.  Little FU#1 goes a week per month to college for each unit of his course.  His final assignment is work-based, and adds to his portfolio.  And most importantly, there are no college fees and hopefully, at the end of his training, he will be offered a permanent role at his current place of work.

But here’s the burning (sorry!) question – is it really a worthwhile option for the majority of second-generation FIRE-seekers?

I think most people would assume that graduates achieve higher rates of pay than non-graduates, but figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that more than a quarter of graduates in 2013 were actually paid less than the average for those on work-based training schemes.  The Sutton Trust, a foundation who research social mobility, found that across a lifetime, someone with a level 5 (foundation degree equivalent) apprenticeship averages earnings of around £1.5m, while someone with a degree from a non-Russell Group university earns just under £1.4m on average (when student debt repayments are considered) as reported in The Times as long ago as 2015.   With the average debt for university leavers now estimated at £50k according to Which, apprentices will not only escape student debt and potentially start saving for early retirement quite a few years from their university-attending peers, but they might be earning more than them, too.

But surely a 3 year degree makes for more solid learning than a part-time apprenticeship or part-time learning?  When I was at university I lost count of the numbers of cancelled lectures due to illness or the weather and found the amount of time wasted between lectures and seminars really frustrating.  On Wednesdays I only had an hour lecture all day – needless to say Wednesday became my unofficial ‘day off’.  I could’ve finished my degree in half the time if those gaps had been filled, and I doubt times have changed that much.   Online learning is a way to eliminate those gaps and make learning really efficient.  You get out what you put in.  Ryan Carson reckons in his interview with Mr Money Mustache that by enrolling onto a course at Treehouse, if you start with no technical knowledge you can be job-ready in about six months, which is just incredible.   Treehouse subscriptions are only £20 per month!!!

Some might argue that it’s all very well not going to university, but isn’t it the case that most ‘good’ jobs require a degree?Mr Money Mustache’s post mentions 50 jobs that pay $50,000 per annum without a degree, and it’s even possible to become a lawyer without going to Uni these days, so unless the chosen career absolutely requires a degree, such as a doctor or vet, etc., it might be a really financially astute move for young people to shun the tradition education-to-career paths and look to apprenticeships to kickstart the journey to FIRE as soon as school is over.

Isn’t it just boring to commit to a full-time job straight after school when there are university bar crawls and parties to be enjoyed?  Is FU#1 missing out on the social aspect of university?  No, he regularly travels to spend weekends with friends who are at Uni, which means he can sample all the daftness and fun of student life without the restrictions of a student budget (even on his dad’s FIRE savings plan, he’s able to have enough cash for a really great time!)

Like Little FU#1 (fingers crossed), forward-thinking young FIRE-starters might end up with almost £25k of savings by the time their contemporaries leave University with 50k of debt.

So FU#1 will have a £75k headstart in front of most uni graduates.

Pretty cool, eh?


What are your thoughts?

Is university obsolete?

What jobs need a university education?




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7 Responses to An Apprenticeship in FIRE-Starting

  1. Ms ZiYou says:

    This is really interesting, I’d love to follow how your son gets on.

    The world is changing and degrees are not necessary in themselves, but I do think there is a case for educating the population to a higher level, albeit not in such a strict academic way.

    • Mrs Fu Mon Chu says:

      Thank you for your comment. I’m sure we’ll be updating his progress and he has promised to write a post himself… we might be waiting a while for that, he’s really laid back!!!!
      It’s really very interesting how quickly education is changing, or rather how quickly the need for education to change is happening. I think people will always want to learn and further their skills, but if they can’t do that through work they’ll look online for training they can do at their own pace and in their own time.

  2. YoungFIGuy says:

    Hi Ms Fu, I really enjoyed this post! I’m so pleased you wrote about this.

    Sounds like Little FU1 has found a really good career path. It was a very mature decision, and not an easy one. So I’m glad to hear it has worked out well!

    I think that there is starting to be some movement away from university educations. I think that’s a good a thing.

    Talking about my own profession, accountancy, it’s now possible to become a chartered accountant without university via the AAT route. The Big 4 have started taking on a number of school leavers which has been very successful. Some of the first school leavers are now in the late 20s and early 30s making Partner at very young ages.

    I also have a friend who went a similar route to Little FU1 and its worked out great for him. He finished his A Levels and joined a contracting firm part-time studying at the local college / university to get the degree he needed. He’s now a director at local contracting firm and only in his mid-20s. It really worked well for him as he wasn’t so academically minded but was very passionate about his work (and good at it!).

    In short, you don’t need to go to uni to forge a great career!

    • Mrs Fu Mon Chu says:

      Hi YoungFIGuy, thanks for your comments – it’s reassuring to read how young would-be accountants have alternative routes to their career – I should really do more research and add to my post how it’s applicable to so many jobs. Also great to read that your friend has been able to find success in a job he loves through part-time study – and he’s still a very young man. Wow – he has really been very successful – good for him.
      Little FU#2 takes her GCSEs next summer and we’re already secretly hoping she doesn’t follow the Uni path without a proper reason and goal. She’s actually doing work experience at Little FU#1’s place of work next week – maybe she’ll see what a fantastic place it is to work and follow her brother’s lead!

  3. Adam says:

    I think it depends on the job as to whether or not you need university.

    I am a software developer and a self-taught one at that and I can say with confidence that computer science graduates are next to useless, you spend the first year training them how to write and deliver commercial software.

    Your son coming in via an apprenticeship will be better placed in the future when it comes to move onto another company, when companies look for software developers they are looking for people with a few years under their belt of actually doing software and with the skills shortage we are suffering he will be snapped up.

    So congrats to you and your son!

  4. raluca says:

    Strictly for preparing yourself for a future job university might not be the best way to go about. However, universities are still the place where a lot of research takes place. If your child is research-oriented, curious, always ready to break things to see how they work inside, then I suggest that a traditional university is still the right way to go.
    When getting trained for a job you are thought how to do things the right way. When going to university (a good one), you should be thought how to discover better/new ways of doing things.

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