I recently met a young man who, after hearing what I do, asked what he should study at university. He had been interested in engineering but then was persuaded to apply for law. He was a second year student, doing okay but not great, and was worried what that might mean for future employment opportunities. He was concerned that he wasn’t passionate about what he was studying and was potentially building a career in something he didn’t like.

So what did I say? Firstly, I commented on his wisdom in recognising that he needed to be passionate about his career. But I also highlighted that a degree in law did not mean he had to practice law, nor did it mean if he started in law he had to stay in law. After telling him he’s only 19 and shouldn’t worry so much, I made the following comments:

Many people change their field of study after their first year at university. They use the first year as a ‘taster’ or, in some instances, to get a foot in the door of the university with every intention of changing into their preferred course in second year.

Yes, there are some careers, such as medicine, law, accounting, engineering and teaching, where you have to have the qualification to practice the profession. However, there are many instances where people study these qualifications and don’t work in the profession. There are also careers that don’t require a specific degree, or need a degree at all—even though it is listed as a pre-requisite—but that’s a topic for another blog another day. The knowledge you gain in any subject will be of merit in your career, even if it’s not directly related. Employers are now looking beyond qualifications and marks when choosing employees, and extra-curricular activities are regarded as a strong indicator of character.

You don’t have to go to university—now or at all. This probably doesn’t seem like ‘good advice’ to many people, but it is an option that should be seriously considered. As potential employers, we should be exploring more options to support people who are exploring careers by entering the workforce while they are still studying, or even to support older parents who never went to University to enter the workforce once their children have grown up.

University teaches many excellent and valuable skills, including self-discipline, time management skills, literacy and numeracy, and higher-order skills like critical and analytical thinking. However, many of these skills are also learnt through a combination of life experience and vocational education. It is all too often employers’ preconceptions and misconceptions that prevent capable candidates from fulfilling important roles in organizations simply because they do not have a degree. Degrees and what they represent are important, but they are not everything. In terms of job satisfaction and turnover, it is important to find a candidate with the personality and interests to match the position.