A rise in the number of careers that can be accessed through apprenticeships has not been matched by increasing sign-up to the opportunities.
Figures presented to TDs and senators show that registrations on the 17 apprenticeship programmes introduced in the last two years are just one-third of the target set in 2016.
It had been envisaged that there should be close to 6,200 new registrations annually by this year on apprenticeships, including 25 new programmes that were expected to have opened up to people interested in the earn-while-you-learn route as an alternate to third-level or further education.
But data given by further education and training agency, SOLAS, to the Oireachtas Education Committee shows that overall registrations on all apprenticeships were 4,530, or 73% of the target set two years ago. However, the total masks a disappointing uptake of new apprenticeships, as more traditional craft apprenticeships in electrical, construction, motor and engineering trades enjoy stronger growth.
There were just 509 new registrations on 17 new apprenticeship programmes by last month, instead of the anticipated 1,500.
A mix of difficulties getting employers on board and in finding suitable applicants for the new programmes contributed to the slow start following efforts to widen the scope of apprenticeship training in the past five years.
Nearly 170 new apprentices in the financial sector and 127 in hospitality are contrasted with just 12 new registrations with eight employers offering bio-pharma apprenticeships this year.
Independent senator, Lynn Ruane, raised the class element associated with apprenticeships, saying they are one of the few areas in which people from the middle-class and upper class are under-represented.
She has had approaches from what she described as “quite a middle-class” school whose staff want to know how they can make apprenticeships attractive to their students.
She asked about the social background of parents of people taking up the new apprenticeships, as well as efforts being made to address the mere 2% of places taken by female participants:
Department of Education principal officer, Phil O'Flaherty, said that, as well as aiming to give people a broader range of opportunities, the increased range of apprenticeships is intended to make the option available to a broader range of people.
On the question of gender, he said there is work to be done particularly around craft apprenticeships and an ongoing campaign seeks to get young women to see themselves having a role in engineering, construction and motor industries: "[There are] some new apprenticeships where we have loads of people who would be interested in getting involved but are struggling to get enough places with employers.
"And [there are] others where there’s loads of employer interest but low level of interest among [potential apprentices]."