Written by Russell Wrapson, this article was originally published in 2022 as a LinkedIn Article – but we thought we’d share it on the website so more people would have a chance to read it.

SWJ’s team have diverse backgrounds. Not all the directors, or the team have degrees in structural engineering, proof that university is not the only way into the profession.

However, two of the youngest and newest members of staff are both graduates (or will be) and it is interesting to hear from them what their opinion is on a degree v’s an experience-based route into the industry.

I am interested to discuss and encourage those who don’t consider themselves to be academic or enjoy academic studies, like myself, to look at different ways of becoming an engineer (not just a degree) and discuss the pros and cons.

I have an ONC and HNC and so at academic levels, I would be considered an under-graduate but I am confident that there would be no value in an academic degree for me now as I have such a wealth of experience. Although an apprenticeship as we know it now for engineering didn’t exist when I started my career I had nothing but positive experiences learning on the job. I believe by getting a job rather than going to college at 18 I was not only earning as I learnt but I was exposed to a lot more opportunities and learnt a lot quicker with first-hand industry experience.

Recent Graduate point-of-view

Bertran Ates our latest recruit agrees. He came to SWJ in September straight from the University of Coventry with a degree in Structural Engineering, but he feels that university didn’t equip him with the practical knowledge and problem-solving skills he needs in the real world. He says they were taught maths to calculate load capacity for example but not how to solve an issue of a failing wall with that load capacity. When you’re solving textbook problems, it doesn’t matter if a wall or brace fails at maximum capacity, but it matters in real life and it was this kind of problem-solving he hadn’t been exposed to this.

The other two directors of SWJ both have degrees but not only do we do different jobs (I am more on the digital construction side of things) we have different interests. By going into industry from an early age I was exposed to a lot of different departments in different companies and flowed the path I liked the most, I am not sure degrees allow you the flexibility to abandon what you don’t enjoy and move on as freely. When I was 18 structures scared me, and I worked with civils until I found a route through digital problem solving that moved me back to structures.

An under-graduate on placement’s opinion

Matthew Brown is currently working with us as a Structural Technician on a year placement from Exeter University. He chose structures after a year doing a more general engineering first year where he was exposed to materials, mechanical, electrical, structural and civil so he could then decide what he would progress in. He chose civils yet he is here working on structures with us!

When I asked him about what he learnt at university as opposed to what he is learning on the job he also felt that university gave him the background knowledge but not how to apply it. Conversely, though, it is his university education that has given him a more rounded knowledge. He says that he understands more of the ‘why’ things work. The computer tells me the calculations are OK and everything will work and I understand why.’ What Matt isn’t getting at university according to him is the knowledge of what’s going on in the industry and how it works, how long things take – a housing development for example. Also, the application of elements such as the Euro codes. Both Bertran and Matt commented that although they touched on Eurocodes and British Standards at university work makes them dig deep into them and their practical applications.

Matt sought out his placement year, although university encouraged it, it wasn’t mandatory but Matt himself admits to needing to find some inspiration and drive to complete his third and final year. He felt like he has got to a point where he was just learning “more and more stuff” but not how to use it.

I wanted to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could and worked all the hours to develop in my career as quickly as I could. If you are committed to learning and not afraid to get your hands dirty anyone can carve themselves a career as an engineer, whether they go down the degree route or not.

Matt would not do it differently given the chance, he would do a degree again, but Bertran feels like going to university to get his degree has slowed down his career when you compare it to someone who has completed a five-year degree apprenticeship.

Bertran has found a job but he has friends who haven’t and although degrees do open doors they are no guarantee where are as if a company has invested in you for 5 years you a valuable asset to them, and they will likely continue to employ you. ‘I am not an asset to Coventry Uni’ says Bertran.

Best of both worlds

There seems to be such a wide gap between learning at Uni and on the job. Financially, earning while you learn seems more appealing, if you are not concerned about missing out on the student lifestyle. Doing a degree seems like an isolated and sanitised way to enter the industry. A degree apprenticeship does seem to be the best of both worlds, the theory and knowledge about how and why things work coupled with the experience of real work and projects. I feel like if you’re willing to work hard and learn then anything is possible. I would encourage any young person considering engineering to find a way to combine academia with practical experience be that an apprenticeship, a degree with work experience or a job where you embrace every learning opportunity.