Alternative career pathways other than going to university

A woman wearing safety equipment while using machinery

Nicola Dowse

Posted October 28, 2022

University isn’t the only viable option after Year 12. There are lots of alternative pathways for school-leavers to ensure they find a rewarding career. 

There’s a lot of pressure on teenagers to decide what they’ll do after school. If the stress of exams wasn’t enough, they’ve also got to decide on what career they’ll enter.

Often going to university is regarded as the apex option - the one that every student should aspire to. But that’s just not true says James Whiting, Career Projects Innovation Lead at youth mental health organisation, Orygen.

“In every industry you can get in on either a qualification, or a university education. And often you can get in, on entry level, with no qualifications,” says Whiting.  

Career trajectories also aren’t as regimented as they once were. Many people have several careers across separate industries during their lifetime, reskilling or transferring their skills across jobs. 

If you’re unsure about what industry you might want to enter, Whiting has one word for you: “Research, research, research,” he says. “There's a lot of information out there online that young people can access themselves.”

Whiting further recommends seeking the advice of someone in the industry or industries that you’re interested in entering as well, as this can provide the extra support needed to make a decision. It’s also important to remember that everyone is on their own timeline, and to look for a career and career pathway that works for you. 

“It's really important for young people to think about what they are going to enjoy and what they're going to really love to do in the future.”

A woman apprentice being shown how to install a solar panel

An apprenticeship is a great option if you prefer hands-on learning. Photo: Getty.

Alternative career paths 

Learn a vocation 

University isn’t the only way to study after Year 12. Vocational education and training provides hands-on skills for industries like hospitality, construction, aged care, early education, plumbing, animal care, beauty and massage therapy, business, administration and a whole lot more.

In September 2022, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research released a report highlighting that those who underwent VET courses are better equipped to “hit the ground running” and that on entering the workforce VET-qualified individuals are provided the same tasks and renumeration as those who’ve completed higher education qualifications. 

Start an apprenticeship

Do you prefer to work with your hands and create something tangible? You might be the perfect candidate for an apprenticeship. Careers in hospitality, beauty and hair dressing, construction and mechanics are just some of the industries that use an apprenticeship-based training system. 

Starting an apprenticeship has some benefits over university. You will be paid for the work you do, and you can even start your apprenticeship while still at school (allowing you to gain a skill while still receiving your VCE or VCAL). It’s often a requirement for apprentices to complete formal training for their trade at a TAFE or similar institution while they gain on-the-job experience as well.

Once you’ve completed your apprenticeship, you’ll have a practical skill that can help you find work all over the world and allow you to even start your own business, or work for yourself as a contractor. 


A group of young people hiking through the bush

There's nothing wrong with taking a 'gap year' between school and university. Photo: Getty.

Take a break 

At the end of Year 12, most students will have spent a whopping 13 years studying. It’s a mammoth achievement and one deserving of a break.  

A gap year is a year (or for some, years) taken between finishing high school and going on to further study. Some people choose to spend their gap year travelling, working, or a combination of both. The beauty of taking some time off is that it allows you the time to consider and confirm your study options before committing to further study.  

Most university courses will allow you to defer the course you’ve been accepted in as well. This means you can apply for uni as a school-leaver in Year 12, get accepted, and then opt to defer and go back to study that degree once you’ve had a well-deserved break.  These are some of the most in-demand travel locations if you’re looking for inspiration.  

Study as a mature-age student 

Not everyone wants to back up 13 years of schooling with another three-plus years of tertiary study. If you want to take a break after school, travel, enter the workforce or otherwise try something else, you can always go back to university (or start a VET course or another study option) later as a mature-age student. 

Most universities classify a mature-age student as someone aged 21 or older, while vocational training institutions vary in what they consider ‘mature-age’. Entry is often calculated using more than just your high school results, with bridging pathways an option if you didn’t do quite as well as you would’ve liked in Year 12, and life experience and other qualifications sometimes taken into account.  

Even if you decide to go straight into study after high school, you can always go back to tertiary studies as a mature-age student later in life if you choose to swap careers. You can even take on a mature-age apprenticeship, which applies to anyone aged 21 or older. 

Turn your passion into a business 

Maybe you’re a fantastic home baker, or perhaps you’ve got a knack for art, web design, writing or music. You might want to consider turning your hobby into your job. 

If you’re making money for your hobby, the first step is to sign up for an Australian Business Number, or ABN. This can be done for free online. It may also be worthwhile taking a short course in business management and exploring whether you might require business insurance – this can be acquired for everything from bricks-and-mortar businesses through to market stalls and independent contractors.

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