University, Vocational or Apprenticeship

University, Vocational or Apprenticeship

There’s arguably never been a better time be an engineer but there’s no one route into engineering. The question you should ask yourself is which Engineering Path Is Right For Me?

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If you’re someone who’s thinking about embarking on an engineering career pathway, we’ll give you the really good news first.

There’s arguably never been a better time be an engineer.

Engineering is a lucrative career no matter where you are in the world, but it’s an especially rewarding one if you’re growing up in the UK.

Let’s take a quick look at the stats:

  • 19% of the UK workforce are employed in an engineering job
  • 68% of students who obtained a first in an engineering based degree was employed after six months.
  • 65 million engineering jobs are expected to have been created by 2024.

It gets better. The UK government is making a concerted effort to invest more money in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. As part of its new Industrial Strategy, the government is planning to invest £406 million in STEM learning and technical education in the coming years

So if you’re interested in applying your skills to an engineering career, there’s never been a bigger demand for what you have to offer.

But here’s where it gets complicated. There’s no one route into engineering. In the stats we listed above, you’ll see that we made reference to the employability of someone who’s studied for an engineering-based degree.

You might be reading this and thinking – “what if university isn’t for me?”

Well, we’ve got some more news (we’re really spoiling you now). There’s more than one route into engineering.

As part of its continued investment in STEM-based skills, the government has announced massive reforms to technical education, creating more opportunities for school students to take more work-based routes into engineering.

Separating out the different routes into engineering can be difficult, especially at a time when so many new opportunities are being created. You may also be reading this and feeling a bit uncertain as to where your preferences lie.

In this article, we’re going to take you through the different routes into engineering, the qualifications you’ll learn and what you need to get there.

What are the different routes into engineering?

What makes engineering career planning so difficult is the fact there are so many different types of engineering. The term ‘engineering’ encompasses many different pathways, which can lead to different careers.

We can’t go into all the different types of engineering career here (that’s for another article). But broadly speaking there are three main routes into an engineering career.

The three routes worth considering are:

Studying a range of vocational qualifications

Vocational qualifications teach students practical skills and knowledge related to an area of employment (engineering in this case). Exams are both written and practical.

Undertaking an apprenticeship

An apprenticeship allows students to build up skills and knowledge whilst in paid employment. An apprentice will spend most of their time learning in the workplace, but they will also get the chance to work towards a qualification through a specialised learning provider, such as a Further Education (FE) college.

Taking an academic route

Broadly speaking, an academic route will see you study subjects that will lead you towards an engineering degree. These could be science and maths based A-levels (e.g. Maths, Further Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics) or the new Mathematics qualifications through the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.

These three routes do overlap, and aren’t completely exclusive from one another. It’s important to bear this in mind when considering your options.

Option 1: Vocational & Technical Qualifications

If you’re interested in a vocational pathway and are currently considering your future, there are a range of options to choose from. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the government, along with relevant educational and accrediting organisations, are in the process of reforming vocational qualifications. This means that the options open to you may depend on your age and school year.


These refer to National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and the equivalent Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs). NVQ/SVQs are what are known as ‘competency-based’ qualifications. They can be taken through work or college (they are also available as part of an apprenticeship – more on this later!).

What does ‘competency-based qualification mean?

An NVQ/SVQ qualification is based on national occupational standards that determine what knowledge and understanding a competent person in a certain job is expected to be able to do.

SVQs are broadly similar to NVQ but are most offered in Scotland. They are offered as qualifications within the wider Scottish Credit Qualifications Framework, allowing Scottish vocational students to set achievable career goals in relation to other relevant Scottish qualifications they might want to take.

How are NVQs/SVQs assessed?

You can only take an NVQ or SVQ if you are employed (since these qualifications are designed to test work-place). Assessments for an NVQ/SVQ are therefore always completed in the workplace. Broadly speaking, NVQ/SVQ assessment is done in one of two ways.

  • Through a portfolio that evidences the work you’ve done and the skills you’ve gained.
  • By having your work observed/assessed, to ensure you meet basic competencies.
  • Employees working towards an NVQ/SVQ may be required to write personal statements or reflective accounts of their learning.

Examples of engineering NVQs/SVQs

There are a multitude of engineering-based NVQs/SVQs out there. It’s also worth mentioning that there are other courses relevant to a future engineering path.

The choice of qualifications is big enough that we can’t list them all here, but a few examples include:

Case Study: Civil Engineering for Technicians NVQ (Level 3)

A few examples of what a student of this NVQ would learn include:

  • Management and leadership in civil engineering
  • Procedures and techniques for civil engineering tasks.
  • Commercial awareness
  • Health, safety and welfare for civil engineers.

What are the different NVQ/SVQ levels?

There are various levels of NVQ/SVQ accreditation. You can study from secondary right up to university/higher education level. Here’s how NVQs relate to other qualifications.

  • Level 1 – equivalent to 3-4 GCSEs at grades D-G
  • Level 2 – equivalent to 4-5 GCSEs at grades A* to C.
  • Level 3 – equivalent to 2 A-levels.
  • Level 4 – Higher Education Certificate/BTEC.
  • Level 5 – Higher Education Diploma/Foundation Degree

As you can see, there’s the potential to take an engineering NVQ pathway all the way from age 16 up to Foundation Degree. But if there are other vocational-based qualifications which, as well as being taught in a school/college environment, can also be mixed with more academic qualifications.


BTECs are named for the organisation that originally founded them – the Business Technology & Education Council. These are practical-based, vocational qualifications that can be taken through your school or college.

Many students take alongside, or instead of, A-levels at sixth form level. For example, UCAS reported that 26% of students applying to university in 2015 held at least one BTEC qualification.

And remember what we said about how vocational and academic routes into engineering aren’t exclusive? The fact that more school and college students are opting for BTECs means that more universities are accepting them for entry at degree level.

How are BTECs assessed?

Students working towards their BTECs must take a number of core modules, as well as a number of optional ones. BTEC students are awarded either a Pass, Merit or Distinction.

When studying towards a BTEC, you can expect a combination of written assessments alongside more practical assignments. This means that the choice of BTEC subjects on offer will be of a more practical nature than A-levels or the IB, which are more theoretical courses.

What are the different levels of BTEC?

Like NVQs/SVQs, BTECs can be taken from the final years of secondary school, at sixth form/college and even up to university level. The different levels of BTEC are as follows.

BTEC Levels 1 & 2 – equivalent to a GCSE.

BTEC Level 3 – equivalent to/can be taken alongside an A-Level.

BTEC Level 4 & 5 – these are equivalent to the 1st & 2nd year of an undergraduate degree.

Examples of BTEC Engineering qualifications

Some examples of BTEC engineering courses you can take include:

  • Aircraft Maintenance
  • Aeronautical Engineering
  • Construction and the Built Environment
  • Engineering Design and Technology
  • Land Engineering

Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas

BTEC Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) are Level 4 and 5 vocational qualifications offered by higher and further education colleges. You could also take them as part of an apprenticeship. Again there are HNCs and HNDs for multiple types of engineering.

The Tech Bac

The Tech Bac is a technical qualification offered in some colleges around the UK. They are offered through City and Guilds, a private organisation that provides work-based technical and vocational qualifications. Like the BTEC, a Tech Bac will combine classroom learning with work-based competencies. Students of the Tech Bac can expect to gain a number of key qualifications and competencies.

Specifically, students of the Tech Bac can expect:

  • A technical qualification designed in collaboration with employers, to give students the work-based skills they need.
  • A project qualification that demonstrates your independent study skills and project management abilities to potential universities and employers.
  • A work experience placement, organised by your college.
  • Online tools and resources, such as an online CV where you can earn badges to further showcase your learning and development.

The Tech Bac is designed to keep students’ options open. With a Tech Bac in engineering, you could go straight into an engineering job, but you would also have the necessary skills to continue onto university study.

Engineering TechBac options

City and Guilds offer an Advanced Technical Extended Diploma that offers students a good technical grounding in engineering, whilst also offering optional modules that would allow you to specialise. A few examples of the mandatory, foundational modules include:

  • engineering materials
  • manufacturing methods in engineering
  • engineering design
  • engineering mathematics and statistics
  • engineering workshop practice
  • manufacturing engineering
  • robotics and automated manufacture.

Following on from this, students can specialise further in a number of different engineering pathways. Some of these include:

  • civil engineering
  • aerospace engineering
  • automotive engineering
  • rail engineering
  • marine engineering.

T Levels

These are a new technical qualification that the government will be introducing from 2020. So, if you’re reading this and you’re still in secondary school, then T Levels might be worth considering if you’re looking for a technical pathway into engineering.

You’ll be able to take T Levels from September 2020. Like the other technical and vocational qualifications we’ve covered, T Levels are being developed in partnership with businesses and employers to ensure that they prepare students for the world of work.

These qualifications are slowly being rolled out, but it is expected that students will be able to take courses in building services engineering and manufacturing.

Is a vocational path right for me?

As you can see, there’s no one vocational path, and you have a number of options if you want to take those first steps into engineering whilst gaining valuable work-based skills and competencies as well.

The range of vocational courses at 16 and 18 means that there are a number of routes into engineering, some of which will prepare you for going straight into employment and some that can help ready you for studying a university degree.

So it really depends on you. If you do want a vocational qualification that is almost entirely work-based, then an NVQ/SVQ might be your best bet. But if you want to mix workplace learning with classroom based teaching, then a BTEC or TechBac path might be what you’re looking for.

In short, vocational engineering qualifications in the UK exist as part of a spectrum. If you want to take a fully vocational/technical path into engineering from 16 onwards, you can do so. Alternatively, it’s possible to mix the vocational path with the academic. It’s up to you!

Option 2: Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are essentially qualifications that allow you to ‘earn as you learn’, working towards a qualification whilst being employed. Apprenticeships overlaps with some of the vocational qualifications we listed in the previous section.

But where apprenticeships differ from vocational qualifications is that they are provided and funded, at least partially, by companies and businesses themselves. Apprenticeships are more likely to lead to employment afterwards – since your company is funding you to learn, it will be in their interest to keep you on!

Apprenticeships are delivered as a partnership between a company and a certified training provider. Whilst undertaking an apprenticeship, you can expect to work towards qualifications, whether through college or online.

The great news about engineering apprenticeships is that they tend to pay higher salaries than the National Minimum Wage requirement for most apprenticeships. places the salary of an engineering apprenticeship anywhere between £12,000 and £28,000. As you’ll see in the rest of this section, much depends on the sector or engineering pathway you take.

The different levels of apprenticeship explained

If you want to take an apprenticeship engineering path, there are three main levels you should be aware of.

  • Intermediate Apprenticeships – these are about the equivalent of a GCSE.
  • Advanced Apprenticeships – these are the equivalent of an A-level or IB qualification.
  • Higher and Degree Level Apprenticeship – as you may have guessed from the title, these are equivalent to taking an Engineering degree (BEng) or a HND/HNC qualification.

If you’re based in Scotland and decide you want to do an apprenticeship, you can expect to be working towards an SVQ.

The different types of engineering apprenticeship

There are a whole host of engineering sectors and pathways that offer apprenticeships. To name a few examples, they include:

  • Aerospace
  • Automotive
  • Construction
  • Electrical
  • Hydraulics
  • Mechanical
  • Systems engineering
  • Transport engineering

How do I find an apprenticeship?

It’s possible to find an apprenticeship in the same way as you’d look for a normal job. For example, apprenticeship opportunities are available through a number of job sites. You can apply for apprenticeships directly through the companies and businesses offering them. Some of the companies that offer apprenticeships include:

  • BAE Systems.
  • Network Rail
  • Utility companies such as EDF & E.ON
  • Jaguar Land Rover
  • Virgin Media
  • NHS Trusts

There are hundreds of other companies offering apprenticeships. If you’re interested in what’s out there, then it’s a question of doing your research. As you look for an apprenticeship, think about some of the criteria that you’d look for in any other job. Ask yourself questions like:

  • How much will I be paid?
  • What are my prospects when the apprenticeship is over?
  • What core competencies/skills will I learn?
  • Where in the country will I be based?

Whilst you will spend most of your time working as part of your apprenticeship, you’ll also be granted some time off for study, be it through a college or university. As you study towards an apprenticeship, you can expect to assesses through essays, coursework, written assessments and practical assessments.

If you decide on an apprenticeship, you can expect to work towards a number of different qualifications. Apprenticeships incorporate qualifications into what is known as a ‘skills framework’. An apprenticeship may include:

  • A work/competency based qualification e.g. an NVQ.
  • Key skills such as English, Maths and ICT.
  • A technical qualification such as a BTEC.
  • An academic qualification, such as a foundation degree or the equivalent of a Bachelors degree.

Apprenticeships will vary greatly – the qualifications you earn and the length of your apprenticeship will depend on what sector you’re working in, the level of your apprenticeship and who is employing you.

What can I do after my engineering apprenticeship?

The world is your oyster! An engineering apprenticeship will open lots of doors for you. Options include:

  • Remain with your employer and eventually become a professional engineer.
  • Progress towards a higher level of apprenticeship (if you’ve finished your Intermediate, you may wish to work towards an Advanced Apprenticeship).
  • Work towards achieving a professional accreditation, e.g. becoming a Chartered Engineer.

Is an apprenticeship the right path for me?

Apprenticeships offer many of the same benefits as taking the vocational route (after all, they offer a package of vocational qualifications). An apprenticeship is another opportunity to get hands-on, work-based experience of being an engineer, whilst studying towards a relevant qualification.

Apprenticeships are also growing in popularity and profile, with the government trying to encourage more people to work towards an apprenticeship and more companies to offer apprenticeships. You can expect apprenticeships to become a more popular route into the world of engineering in the coming years.

If you’re thinking about an apprenticeship consider the fact that you’ll be trained by a company or business. This means that you should think about the environment in which you want to learn and whether this company or business is the right fit for you. Whilst you’re not signing your whole life away by undertaking an apprenticeship, a company will be investing a lot of time and energy in your training and development. Is it a company that you want to devote the next few years of your life to?

Once again, taking the apprenticeship into engineering carries with it a degree of flexibility. Apprenticeships encompass a range of vocational and academic qualifications. Ultimately, you can forge your own, bespoke path into the world of engineering. But apprenticeships are definitely the right route if you want to have strong links with the world of work from the word ‘go’.

Option 3: Academic qualifications

The academic pathway to becoming an engineer will usually involve taking more theoretical qualifications such as the A-level, or the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP).

Both A-levels and the IB are more classroom based qualifications and they won’t offer the work-based experience of engineering in the same way as the other pathways we’ve covered.

A-level and IB qualifications are still the most common means of gaining entry to an engineering degree at a UK university. If you’re still in secondary school, then you’ll need to take science and maths courses at sixth form/college.

However, as we’ve discussed, you can mix A-levels with more vocational subjects. What’s more, universities are increasingly accepting a combination of academic and vocational qualifications in order to gain entry to a university based degree.

A-levels/AS levels

If you’re staying in school/studying at sixth form college after age 16, then the A-level is the most popular and most recognised qualification. No matter which type of engineering you are interested in pursuing, there are a number of core A-level qualifications that you’ll need.

For most engineering courses, an A-level in Maths is essential, with many universities also asking for a Further Maths qualification. In addition, many engineering courses will require a science-based subject, with physics and chemistry being the most common entry requirements. Some engineering degrees will require maths and two other sciences; e.g. chemical engineering degrees will often ask for physics and chemistry.

There are also a number of other A-levels that can support a university application to study engineering. You’ll need to check the entry requirements for individual engineering courses carefully, but some examples of other subjects include:

  • Geography
  • Environmental Science
  • Economics
  • Design Technology
  • Computing
  • Biology

The required grades for an engineering degree will vary wildly. But if you’re looking to study a highly ranked engineering course, then A* and A grades will most likely be needed.

Note: If you do want to take the academic route, you’ll also need to demonstrate good GCSE grades in English, Maths and Science.

The International Baccalaureate (IB)

The International Baccalaureate has become an increasingly popular academic qualification in the past ten years and it’s given equal weighting by many UK universities.

If you’re an IB student who wants to study an engineering degree, you’ll need to take Maths at Higher Level. As of September 2019, the IB are launching two new Maths qualifications, both of which equip an IB student with the necessary competencies to take an Engineering course at university.

  • Mathematics: Analysis & Approaches – a more theoretical Maths course that focuses on problem solving.
  • Mathematics: Applications and Interpretations – a course that looks more at maths in a practical context and how it applies in the real world.

Universities are indicating that they will, broadly speaking, give equal weight to both maths courses for IB students who want to apply for science or engineering based courses.

Scottish Highers & Advanced Highers

Again, maths and science-based subjects are your best option if you’re thinking of taking an engineering course. Universities will have different entry requirements, but the most competitive engineering courses will require you to apply with ‘A’ grades in your Highers and Advanced Highers.

The Scottish Baccalaureate

Alternatively, if you are at a Scottish secondary school where you are studying towards the Scottish Baccalaureate (a mix of Scottish Highers & Advanced Highers) then the Science Baccalaureate in Science has a number of core and extended options that could prepare you for an engineering courses.

As well as the core subjects Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, you can also take courses such as Computing Science, Engineering Science and Design and Manufacture. These are all courses that are offered at Advanced Higher level and good grades in any of these courses will likely boost your chances of gaining entry to a university engineering course.

Is the academic path right for me?

Unlike the other two pathways we’ve covered, the academic route into engineering will be much more theoretical and classroom based (although of course you can mix academic qualifications with vocational qualifications if you want). Taking A-levels, Scottish qualifications or the IB won’t give you direct professional experience of engineering, but they will equip you with soft skills and background knowledge necessary to ensure you thrive in a subsequent engineering degree or job. These include:

  • Mathematical problem solving skills.
  • A good grounding in the sciences, particularly physics and chemistry.
  • Independent working and learning.
  • Project management (e.g. completing group work and coursework)
  • Working to deadlines and under pressure (exams and coursework)

Whilst the academic path into engineering at secondary school and sixth form is most likely to lead to studying an engineering degree at university (e.g. a Bachelors of Engineering or Masters of Engineering), this doesn’t mean you have to stay on this path. Academic qualifications can also prepare you for an apprenticeship or Higher National Certificate/High National Diploma after you’ve left school.

How do I choose the right path for me?

As you can see, there are a lot of options out there!

Choosing the right pathway into engineering will depend on a number of personal factors. If it’s something you think is in your future, then ask yourself the following questions.

How do you like to learn?

This is an important place to start. Are you more comfortable in a classroom? Do you want a few more years to study science and maths-based subjects from a more theoretical perspective? Or, alternatively, do you think you’ll thrive in a work-based environment, learning on the job and getting valuable practical experience?

Do you want to go straight into a job?

Maybe you want to skip any further school and go straight into the world of work. That’s totally understandable. If you want to earn a salary at the same time as learning your engineering trade, then choosing the right pathway into engineering will be a no-brainer for you!

Do you want to specialise?

This can be a useful question to ask yourself to gauge your readiness for certain vocational qualifications/apprenticeships. Some will be very specialised qualifications and may take you down a certain engineering route quite early. You’ll be learning a very specific engineering trade.

By contrast, some qualifications will encourage you to be more generalist, giving you more of a grounding in the softer skills and competencies that could make you a successful engineer later on.

What sort of engineering do you want to study?

The world of engineering is diverse and encompasses a large family of career paths, competencies and skill sets. Knowing which engineering sector you want to work in can be a difficult choice, and is ultimately a question of your own skills and interests.

So knowing which pathway you want to take is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s also a case of knowing what you’re good at, what excites you about engineering and how you think you can make the most of a potential career path.

In short, choosing an academic, vocational or apprentice path is only the beginning!

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