Jane Alia completed a Certificate III in Dental Assisting while studying at Darwin High School, allowing her to work and earn money in Years 11 and 12.
Jane, a South Sudanese refugee from Uganda, continues to work part-time as a dental assistant and considers her traineeship to be one of her “biggest lifetime achievements”.
For her, studying at TAFE was “more fun because you actually did what you read”. Now with a vocational course under her belt, she has chosen to go on to university, and hopes one day (if she can find the money) to transfer into tertiary-level dentistry.
Unlike Jane, not everyone can attend both TAFE and university, and the choice between them can be very tough. University is by far the more popular option, with 1.2 million students enrolled in higher education last year, compared with 528,800 at TAFE. But should we be piling up thousands of dollars in debt to get a bachelor’s degree, when there are much cheaper hands-on qualifications up for grabs?
Given that university costs so much, you would expect there to be a huge gap in earnings between those who choose TAFE and those who go on to university. But it isn’t always the case.
GPs and solicitors still have some of the highest starting salaries, but electricians, for example, can start out on $62,000 once fully qualified – that’s more than dentists, teachers and accountants.
And while university graduates tend to have a higher average salary over time, suggesting their earning power starts to outstrip the TAFE graduates as their career progresses, the early advantage of TAFE graduates in the form of higher starting salaries puts them in a better position to reach key financial milestones such as home ownership at an early age.
Six months after completing a Certificate IV, those who find full time employment earn an average of $63,000, although the average wage of Certificate III ($48,400) and Certificate II graduates ($44,200) is much lower.
This compares with a median starting wage of $52,450 for under-25 bachelor’s degree graduates.
Even though their average income is less overall, the level of home ownership among tradies is only slightly lower than professionals. According to research conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 36 per cent of tradespeople had high rates of home ownership, compared with 39 per cent for professionals and 38 per cent for para-professionals.
The stereotype is that smart kids go off to uni, while those who struggle at school end up in a trade. But according to qualified plumber Michael Rawnsley, 25, who originally wanted to study a bachelor of sports science, TAFE is just as rigorous.
To get qualified after finishing his Certificate III, Rawnsley had to sit a two-day practical exam. He passed all six units with flying colours, earning an apprenticeship award in the process.
“When I sat it last year, there were about 20 who sat the exam, and two of us who passed the whole lot – me and another guy,” says Rawnsley. “It’s not an easy thing to pass, and that’s the job of the plumbing industry commission – to protect the consumer.”
Becoming a self-employed plumber can take six or seven years, Rawnsley adds. That’s much longer than many university courses, such as a three-year Arts degree.
What it’s like when you hit the real world
Phoebe Lines tried studying journalism at La Trobe University in Melbourne, but found that the restrictive classroom environment wasn’t right for her. After returning home to Byron Bay, she switched into event management at TAFE – and hasn’t looked back since.
Phoebe has used the hands-on experience of running festivals, Xavier Rudd gigs, and the national tour of Toni Childs gained during her time at TAFE to start her own event management company – Wondercat Productions.
For uni students who lack this sort of practical experience, it can be very tough finding a job.
“I have a lot of friends now who are moving here from uni and they have events management degrees, but they can’t get a job because they haven’t actually put on a festival,” says Phoebe.
TAFE is often thought to be the more practical option – a sentiment repeated by all of the interviewees for this story.
But according to Andrew Norton, a policy advisor in higher education at the Grattan Institute, university degrees are “a much more reliable way of earning a good income”.
“Over recent years, professional jobs, where most graduates end up, have grown more quickly than any other broad occupational category.”
But Norton acknowledges that TAFE graduates like Phoebe are more likely to be self-employed – and satisfied with their jobs.
“I believe that this is due to graduates having high expectations about what kind of work they will do that do not always match with reality,” he explains.
Warning: hard physical work has a shelf-life
While a trade sounds like a great idea for a young person keen to work with their hands, it may not last.
Dean Hardy started out his working life at the tender age of 13, working on his dad’s building sites on the weekends. He went on to become a qualified builder through TAFE. But at the age of 35, he realised his body wasn’t going to handle the physical demands of the industry for too much longer.
On the prompting of his wife, he chose to retrain as an osteopath, and describes his five year experience at university as “fantastic”.
“It’s an amazing experience. I think if the Greeks came back and looked at the universities today they would be amazed. It’s an amazing facility,” says Hardy, who now has his own osteopathy clinic on the north coast of New South Wales.
The best decision will, of course, vary depending on your personal circumstances.
According to Norton, there is research to suggest that for guys with average to low high school results, the choice of a trade is “probably a good one”, whereas university can be a better option for women in the same category.
For those leaving school, or wanting to change careers, it might be good to keep in mind this study, which found that as education levels go up, happiness goes down.
Perhaps the more we learn about the universe, the unhappier we get.