Trick or Trade: Is university still the path to money?

university money

“Go to university,” they said. “You’ll make loads of money,” they said. Mmhm, it seems someone may have been misled. With rising rental prices, a more competitive job market, and a pandemic, it seems that many young people in Ireland are starting to question their career paths. Perhaps the reason for this is that, over the years, a degree has been hailed as the sure path to a life of financial prosperity and job security, but is that still true? In this article, we explore the pros and cons of attaining a degree versus entering the workforce in a trade. Let’s get to it!

The push for university

Now, perhaps your experience in secondary school was different, but, for many of us in Ireland, the push to go to a third-level institution afterwards seemed like the only logical step to take.  The growth of STEM fields was promoted as a new job sector that young Irish graduates could pursue and one that was sure to bring in vast amounts of money after graduation. And, so, off we went, with that promise of financial stability dangling like a carrot in the distance. 

As evidenced by a recent survey from the OECD, this push has not been exaggerated, with Irish people between the ages of 25-35 being the most educated group in Europe. Whilst this is an impressive accomplishment, it does raise questions as to whether or not the Irish job market is capable of absorbing these qualified people. 

Too many gradutes not enough jobs

What goes up, must come down 

Now, whilst there are many positives to obtaining a university degree, there are also many downsides when a student picks the wrong one. For example, we know that certain professions, such as all of those related to medicine, law, science, and teaching, require a degree and many years of study. No one is arguing that point. 

However, there has been an expansion of different degrees offered that, perhaps, may not have any long-term value to the graduates paying for them, such as those in communications, advertising, and mass media. These degrees are simply used as vacancies to get as many students into universities as possible and, as such, the topic of  “too many graduates” and “not enough jobs” has reared its ugly head. This surge in attendance to third-level institutions has also meant that CAO points are constantly rising and placing greater strain on those students hoping to compete for a place. 

There is also the issue of having a job market flooded with more and more highly qualified people. The rise in applications for Masters and Ph.D. courses, particularly during COVID-19, has meant that expectations from employers have gone up, thereby diluting the worth of a degree and leaving those without sufficient experience stranded.

Entering the trades

Throughout all of this promotion of the “good life” by attending university, the traditional trade jobs have been left to one side. As skilled workers begin to retire, a shortage of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and construction workers has been created. These jobs, although physically hard and oftentimes dirty, are necessary and, as such, have opened up a new financial opportunity for anyone wise enough to see it. 

Aside from the financial benefits of entering into a trade job, there is also the added perk of knowing when your day is done. For example, an employee in a trade is able to clock off without taking work home with them. Oftentimes, it is common that people in white-collar professions, such as teachers or business associates, find that they are unable to clock off after their day at work. They may spend the remainder of their evening preparing lessons for a class or a sales pitch for tomorrow’s meeting. This means that stress levels amongst white-collar workers are more prevalent. 

The downsides to a trade job 

One of the downsides to these professions is the physical aspect of such work and how it is not always feasible to continue after a number of years. Take, for example, a construction worker or plumber,  who works 6 days a week, every week, for 30 to 40 years. Over time, the wear and tear on their bodies puts them at risk of having to retire earlier from their chosen profession as they cannot keep up with the physical demands anymore. 

Not to mention that trade jobs place people in more hazardous situations than those in an office. Some of the most dangerous professions include commercial fishing, steelworkers, farmers, truck drivers, and roofers. Workplace accidents are more common in these professions and, unfortunately, this is another reason why there has been a shift in young people applying for more white-collar professions as opposed to blue-collar. 


The cost of entering a trade versus university

So, now, let’s get down to the real reason you’re reading this article, money. After all, it is what makes the world go around (after love, of course), and anyone who says that it doesn’t buy happiness is either filthy rich or is smoking something they shouldn’t. 

Trick or Trade Infographics

From the above table, what you see on the left is how much money it would take to cover fees to complete a degree or course in the different areas, whilst the figures on the right show the average salary that you would typically expect to earn after graduation. Now, for the purposes of this graph, we have selected undergraduate degrees from Trinity College Dublin that take about 4 years to complete, depending on the course. This graph does not show the added cost of pursuing a Master’s or Ph.D. course. 

When we look at the figures in more detail, we see that the cost of attending Trinity College Dublin for one academic year, if you are not in receipt of a grant, is €5,681 for a standard Arts degree. That price changes dramatically if you are an international student or if you have selected to do a more expensive degree, such as dental hygiene, which can cost as much as €8290 for one academic year. That is before you take into account rent, utilities, food, travel, and other expenses that are part and parcel of attending college. 

On the other side of this, if a young person was to complete a Level 5 hairdressing course, it takes around 2 years, in which time you finish with experience in colouring, styling, and how to successfully create and manage your business brand. It costs around €1800 for the two years in terms of fees, government levies, and a basic hairdressing kit. After this, the average hairdresser in Ireland earns around €18,000 a year, however, this depends on years of experience in the profession and can go up.  

Similarly, a plumbing apprenticeship, which can last up to 4 years, costs around €2000 in total through a student contribution. The apprentice is also paid a small salary whilst receiving their training from an employer and an allowance is paid to them by the local Education and Training board to cover their education off-site. After this, a qualified plumber can expect to earn an average salary of €49,920, with some earning over €61,263. This is in comparison to a young person with an arts and humanities degree, who can expect to earn the lowest amount after graduating with their average salary estimated to be around €25,343.

So, where does this leave young people?

Whilst these figures seem harsh and perhaps a little depressing, there are pros and cons to both. The solution to figuring out the best fit for young graduates would be to encourage balance in all sectors of employment, as opposed to flooding a select few with more graduates than it can handle. Overall, education is still the gateway to success, but, perhaps, we, as a nation, need to associate financial success with manual labour professions as well, not just academic ones. After all, it is essentially about balancing supply and demand, and, if we continue to promote the idea that university is the only way forward, we risk setting generations up for failure and disappointment. 


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Grace Duffy

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