Exploring alternative options after the Leaving Cert

There are other avenues available to those who don’t want to go straight to third-level

In a jobs market where the focus seems to increasingly be on college qualifications, it is no surprise that the number of young people undertaking third-level education continues to grow.

In 2000, fewer than 78,000 students were enrolled in Irish universities, compared with more than 128,000 by 2019, according to the most recent statistics from the Irish Universities Association.

But with all the conversation around the importance of university, for many young people it can feel like the world is ending when the path ahead seems unclear.

There are so many young people who don’t want to go to college, others whose Leaving Certificate didn’t yield the results they needed for their course of choice, and there are many, many more who have no idea what it is they want to pursue or study.


And that is okay, because there are other avenues available to these people who don’t wish to go straight to third level.

Here is a list of some of the options that young people might choose instead:

1 Work

Contrary to popular opinion, there are many jobs for those without a university degree.

Hospitality and retail are the obvious ones, for which employers often only require a willingness to work hard and to be helpful to customers. However, there are other avenues available to those without degrees. For those who have a driver’s licence, the transport industry might be an option, with operators providing on- the-job training before you set off by yourself.

For individuals with an interest in history or general knowledge, many tour operators are happy to hire enthusiastic individuals.

For adventurous types, there are a variety of activity centres who require staff for things such as rock climbing, kayaking, archery or zip lining.

2 Post-Leaving Cert courses

Post-Leaving Cert (PLC) courses are another excellent alternative to immediate entry to university, though the structure and hours are similar to what students experience at school.

The CAO points race doesn’t factor into getting a place into a further education course, with a large majority of the courses only requiring individuals to pass their exams.

PLC courses also allow people, who are unsure about their path of study, to try a subject or area for a year before committing to a level-eight degree in the field.

At a fraction of the cost of a year’s tuition in university, it is also an excellent option for those who fear they are unable to afford college.

3 Apprenticeship

Traditionally viewed as something that is only available to manual trades, such as carpentry or mechanics, apprenticeships have changed significantly in recent years.

The more traditional fields are still available, with apprenticeships in joinery, plumbing, electrics and plastering.

However, the number of apprenticeships has expanded greatly in recent years, with almost 60 programmes now available across a range of sectors including electrical, finance, ICT, biopharma, recruitment and property services.

The number of places available each year is also increasing – with the Government’s most recent action plan pledging to double the number of apprentices to 10,000 each year by 2025 – which will create increased opportunities for those that wish to pursue them.

In a bid to support this system, the Government also rolled out a new €3,000 grant system and additional supports will be offered to those who employ women, lone parents, people with disabilities, and those living in direct provision. (For more on apprenticeships, see page 8.)

4 Start your own business

Innovation and entrepreneurship are two characteristics that the younger generation have shown in droves, and what better way to apply those than by spotting a gap in the market and filling it with your own business?

While it is definitely not the easiest option, and would require a huge investment of time, building your own enterprise can certainly be one of the most rewarding endeavours to undertake.

Owning your own business would permit you to be your own boss, choose your own hours, and work on something that excites you.

There are obviously challenges to this path, including the lack of guaranteed income, the need for capital costs to get the business up and running and navigating a new, unfamiliar industry.

However, local enterprise offices offer support and advice to help small businesses get off the ground.

There are also many networking groups with other business owners that people could speak to before deciding if it is the right course of action for them.

5 Take free online courses

If there is one positive side to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the improved use of technology. This can especially be seen in the wide availability of online classes, many of which are available for free.

The benefit of this is it allows you to partake in further education from the comfort of your home. Many courses also allow you to take part in the classes in your own time, meaning they are quite flexible and can be adapted to suit your own hours.

The Government runs a programme called eCollege, which is temporarily free-of-charge as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

The scheme has classes on business project management, information technology, graphic design, web design, software development and basic computer skills.

Some universities, including Trinity College, have also partnered with massive open online courses (MOOC) to provide free online courses on a wide variety of subjects.

6 Creative pursuits

For those who have always wanted to be an artist, now is the perfect time to try and make a living out of it, due to the lack of family and financial commitments.

Whether it is wanting to be an author, a painter, a sculptor, or actor, many individuals have been fortunate to make a living from their creative endeavours without having to attend formal tuition.

Obviously, it is not an option for everyone, with many aspiring artists often working part-time on the side in order to pay the bills.

Despite the scoffs that you will likely hear when you tell people that is what you are pursuing, there have been success stories in the past.

Cecelia Ahern, for example, dropped out of her college course to write PS I Love You aged 21, and sold it for a seven-figure book deal.

7 Go travelling

While the pandemic put a sudden halt to all international travel since March 2020, the rollout of the vaccination programme around the world means the possibility of taking a gap year abroad is once again on the table for young people.

Somewhat of a cliche, there is a reason why travelling is so popular. It is a great way to experience new cultures, meet new people and to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

Though spending a year travelling isn’t cheap, there are ways in which to make it more affordable, including avoiding more touristy locations and staying in hostels as opposed to hotels.

For those who feel not working for a full year is not something they can do, another option would be a working visa.

Many countries offer these sorts of programmes, with Australia being one of the most popular destinations for Irish travellers.

8 Join the Garda, fire service or defence forces

Some people feel a pull towards being an integral part of a working community, and there

is no better way to answer that calling than by joining our public services, such as the Garda, the fire service or the defence forces.

Admittance into these fields generally doesn’t require a degree or a certain amount of points from exams.

The minimum requirements for the fire service, for example, being grade D (or a pass) in five subjects, including maths and English, in your junior certificate.

Job-specific training is provided and each body will have rigorous selection procedures to ensure entrants are suitable for the position.

9 Volunteer

Once again, volunteering is obviously not an option for everyone, but for those who are in a financial position to do it, it creates a great opportunity to try something new and is rewarding.

For those who would like to volunteer, but financially cannot afford to have no other income, many charities accept volunteers on a part-time basis, allowing individuals to work as well.

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, it would appear charities of all types are feeling the pressure both financially and ensuring supply meets demand, and would happily welcome additional support through volunteers.

When international travel is back up and running, volunteering abroad is also another option, with opportunities to help in marine conservation, wildlife conservation and with children.

10 Build an online audience

Considering the current cohort of young people are the ones who grew up online, there is nobody better to take on the challenge of monetising this new sector.

The growth of online personalities has skyrocketed in recent years, all of whom put out a variety of content and get paid very handsomely by companies whose products they feature.

From fashion and lifestyle, to fitness, to comedy and gaming, there is a genre of content for everyone’s interest.

There is a platform for everyone too, with users on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok all making money from collaborations with brands.

11 Internships

There is no greater way to determine what field of work suits you best than by trying them first hand.

Internships are the perfect way to do this. While programmes vary significantly in length, many internships offer participants the chance to try different roles within a company and to make connections within an industry that could prove to be invaluable later on in a career.

However, one glaring negative aspect of internships is they are often unpaid or lowly paid, meaning they disproportionately favour those from families of higher income brackets.

In saying that, sometimes all you need is a small taste of a sector to decide whether it is the right one for you.

12 Part-time or evening courses

Last, but not least, there are many part-time courses available through further education centres.

The programmes are offered in partnership with a number of agencies throughout the country on a flexible part-time basis, with classes being offered throughout the year in the morning, afternoons, evenings or weekends.

Some of the evening courses available throughout the country include welding, interior design, computer literacy programmes, computer-aided design, door security, supervisory management, and how to start your own business.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times