The Government has a plan to increase the number of apprentices to boost skills but many people seem unaware of the rich opportunities available, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.
A long-awaited expansion in apprenticeships for people entering the labour force or seeking to change careers is being slowed for a number of reasons.
The reasons include too much bureaucracy, a lack of funding for smaller firms interested in taking on apprentices, as well as mindsets in the education system and among families and students which focus on gathering points to get into college or particular courses.
The new system is being rolled out thanks to the efforts of some determined officials.
However, the registration of apprentices is a year behind the target laid out in the government action plan on apprenticeships.
As a result, employers and workers alike are missing out on important opportunities.
As vacancy levels across the economy have risen, reformers have joined forces in a collective effort to improve the skills of the labour force.
A key change involves the ongoing expansion in our system of apprenticeship which has been based around 27 crafts, mainly in building and allied services.
The Government has moved to implement the recommendations of a review group chaired by the former chairman of the Labour Court, Kevin Duffy in 2013, and a new, so-called Apprenticeship Council was established.
Some observers wonder whether the Government has moved fast enough to implement its suggestions.
Since 2016, 17 new apprenticeships have been introduced in areas ranging from information technology to hospitality and logistics and including auctioneering, biopharma and engineering.
What is on offer is the chance to combine training on the job with access to qualifications through off-site courses.
The qualifications are often of a high quality. Pathways to further education up-to-and-including post graduate level now exist.
This contrasts with traditional apprenticeships where learning takes place largely on the job.
There has been a recovery in apprenticeship registrations from a low point of 1,200 to over 5,000 last year.
As of last December, a total of just under 15,400 people were registered.
While significant, it is well below the targeted figure of 31,000 set for the end of 2020, a figure now unlikely to be reached.
Critics argue that it is all a case of too little too late. Sinn Féin is leading the charge.
In a 2017 document, it pointed out that there were just 30 apprenticeship programmes in place here compared with 250 in Austria.
It seeks a ramping up in spending on apprenticeships to almost €300m a year by 2022, with 46,000 registered apprentices on board by then.
However, many view such a scaling up as overly-ambitious, particularly in view of the other demands on the national budget.
There is a concern that quality considerations could take second place if the ramp up is too speedy.
The UK has driven forward an ambitious programme, with 440,000 people registered in 2017, but this may be a case of “never mind the quality, feel the width”.
Many of the British apprenticeships are, in fact, glorified internships.
Demand for places has fallen off as trade unions accuse some firms of using some apprenticeships to rid themselves of more costly workers.
Tony Donohoe, head of education at business group Ibec, is a member of the Apprenticeship Council. In his view, real progress in designing high quality programmes is being achieved.
However, SMEs — which account for a large majority of businesses — are reluctant to take up an offer of apprentices.
Better resourced organisations such as the ESB have long led the way in this area.
SMEs tend to have limited numbers of staff to assist the apprentices and finances are often tight.
Many owners or managers are unaware of the potential talent that could be delivered to them. Cost is a key issue.
Mr Donohoe contends that firms should be subsidised for those periods when apprentices are away on courses.
The National Training Fund — funded by a levy soon to reach 1% of turnover — has amassed around €500m. And this fund could be dipped into.
Educators, too, need to be persuaded that apprenticeships offer a route to a stable career. There is progress.
Many career guidance people are beginning to come on board.
They can play a big role in persuading students and their families of the benefits of apprenticeship options.
But first, employers need to be convinced. Early estimates suggest that 500 firms are active or interested.
More firms are needed if apprenticeships are to gain in popularity.
Awareness campaigns are needed. Many are unaware that apprenticeships in areas such as insurance are now on offer.
The percentage of female apprentices is still tiny. This needs to change. The unions are backing the idea.
Ictu general secretary Patricia King is on the Apprenticeship Council along with another senior trade union leader, Eamon Devoy.
The new Technological University is now offering pre-apprenticeship programmes aimed at students from deprived communities, or with literacy and numeracy issues.
Mr Donohoe believes that a new online portal should be established so that people can be made aware of the available opportunities.
Germany and Austria are shining examples of what can be achieved when less academic, more practically minded people are enlisted early on by firms.
It would be foolish to suggests that those countries’ systems can be recreated in Ireland overnight.
However, a determined effort to implement the Government’s action plan and put in place an alternative culture in Irish education will surely reap a rich reward.