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University isn't the only path: here's how you can kick start your career without a degree

Choose a uni degree. Pick a trade. Sometimes it can feel like these are your only two options. Like the ridiculous variety of stuff you’ve learned in 12 years of school was designed to shove you down one of two career paths. To be frank, that’s basic.

We’re firm believers that every student should go on to bigger and better things after school but that doesn’t mean locking yourself into life as a carpenter or an engineer at 16. Read on for our tips on how to kick start a career that’s outside the box. 

Look for great careers without a degree

In reality, there’s an almost limitless range of pathways (yes, sometimes it can seem too limitless) for working and learning after school. And none of them are wrong. Skipping uni or a VET course isn’t a “second choice” option, it’s all about finding what is the right choice for you. Look at Boost Juice founder Janine Allis, who built a $200 million smoothie empire after dropping out of high school at 16 to travel the world. Or how about comedian/artist/author/actor (now that’s an impressive CV!) Anh Do, who was six months away from finishing a business and law degree when he heard the stage calling.

Think about your passions and where they could take you

You’ve probably heard this one before but don’t let your eyes glaze over just yet. What are you passionate about? We’re not just talking about maths, writing or footy. Do you like art, music, observing people, solving problems, enjoying the outside world, creating your own worlds? Whatever it is, there’s a career path or 10 buried somewhere in what you love.

In the Looking to the Future report into work, education and training, the expert authors insist all students should be encouraged to follow their passions and strengths. They acknowledge VET pathways aren’t always seen as equal or complementary to uni but argue that needs to change so everyone can realise their career choice is legitimate.

“Academic achievement is important but not the sole reason for schooling,” they write. “We need to focus more on preparing the whole person, no matter what career path they choose.”

Ask for help – you’re not alone

When your mates are excitedly talking about their big plans for uni or how much money they’re already making as an apprentice, it can be hard not to get a bit anxious. But don’t let it get to you. First of all, most of them are probably just as unsure as you about whether they’ve made the right decision. Secondly, you’re in the majority. Even though school sometimes feels like one big ATAR machine, 60% of your fellow students aren’t chasing a tertiary ranking. Even many of your teachers are just as frustrated as you about the hyperfocus on ATARs, worrying that their roles are being narrowed and distorted by the score. 

These same teachers also might not be the best people to give you career advice but luckily there are so many more specialised options. That was the view taken by Looking to the Future report, which found career advice was “inadequate” nationwide, with only pockets of outstanding success. The experts felt it was such a big job that it was unreasonable to expect every school to be able to fully inform their students about the labour market. Fortunately, there are so many other options. 

Our respected virtual work experience courses are a really great start if you already have a vague idea what you’d like to do but we can also help you with more general career guidance. It’s also a really good idea to read through a few career profiles online or ask someone you respect about how they got to where they are. Further down the track you can even look for a structured mentorship program for more detail and experience.

ATARs aren’t everything

We’ve already touched on this but it’s so important. From courses and microcredentials through to soft skills, emotional intelligence and real-life work experience, you can get so much more out of school than just a number between 0 and 100 (OK, 99.95, technically). Whether it’s through one of our virtual work experience programs or another option, one of the best things about this approach is you can get started before you’ve even finished school. 

Even as you read this, there’s a push to give microcredentials and other non-school experience a lot more weight when you’re looking for a job or starting some other sort of training. The Looking to the Future report noted employer and industry groups were on board and 36 of our 42 universities were offering or developing some sort of microcredential.

“School students need support to access the great potential of short online courses,” the authors wrote. “Micro-credentials can help them to explore their passions.” 

Look for traineeships and courses

Beyond qualifications, going behind the scenes through work experience can help you get a much better idea of what you want to do after school. Remember, this is about you, so chase what interests you and not what makes your school look good. The variety of traineeships and courses available to you is enormous and growing every day. School is not for everyone but you have more opportunities than ever to find a better fit. 

Realise learning is a lifelong journey

If your first career choice doesn’t work or you decide it’s no longer for you, that’s fine too. Just remember our friend Anh Do. 

“Most kids would be worried about announcing to their single mom: ’Mum, after five years of university and a big job offer that will guarantee money and for many years to come, I’m going to chuck it all in for a shot at being a stand-up comedian,” he says in his book, The Happiest Refugee

Learning is a lifelong journey that doesn’t end when you leave school for the last time, or even when you retire. It takes courage to make big life-changing decisions, but success is about more than appearances and money. You need to find and follow your passion.

Millennials are changing jobs and careers faster than ever and Gen Z is unlikely to be any more static. According to that report we’ve been talking so much about:

“The skills students need and the careers they follow are likely to change over time. If young people are to become productive workers and active citizens, they need to leave school with the capability and enthusiasm to keep on learning throughout their lives.”

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