Learning to value the role of apprentices

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has just overseen the publication by his department of an in-depth report on apprenticeships in Ireland.

Learning to value the role of apprentices

It is certainly timely, as our economy emerges blinking into the light from a long, dark tunnel.

During the boom, the gaps in our labour force were exposed as never before. That growth spurt will not return any time soon, but the surge in emigration raises the prospect of a re-emergence of skills shortages.

The apprenticeship review group was chaired by the Labour Court chairman, Kevin Duffy, a man with deep knowledge of the grassroots as a former union official.

Early on in the report, a study entitled ‘America’s forgotten middle-skills jobs’ is highlighted.

Prepared by the Urban Institute, in 2007, it points out that even in the US, by 2020, two thirds of all jobs will be in mid to low-skilled positions.

The authors of this report conclude there is need for increased investment in education and training in the middle of the skills range.

Our Institutes of Technology have performed a similar role in providing technically skilled people to the multinational sector, but across the wider economy, focus on such skills development was somewhat neglected.

Ireland has developed a system of apprenticeships, but its focus was largely on construction-related trades. With the collapse of that sector, too many trained apprentices were left out of work, with many heading off to boost the economies of places like Australia and Canada.

It is clear there is a significant cohort of the population, particularly young males, who are losing out in our academic, exam-led school system. They need to be attracted back into the economy.

In Germany, two thirds of young people commence apprenticeships, with almost 80% completing them. There are around 350 recognised trades where completion of an apprenticeship is a pre-requisite to employment.

In Austria, a country closer to Ireland in size, there are 250 legally recognised apprenticeship trades. Around 40% of Austrian teenagers enter training on completion of compulsory education.

The Duffy review group is proposing that the new national authority, Solas, the slimmed down successor to Fás, be given legal responsibility for administration of a new apprenticeship programme which would extend to far more occupations than at present and would be much more flexible in the way it is operated.

Curriculum development would be devolved to the new education and training boards established last year by Mr Quinn, or to higher educational institutions.

Solas would maintain a national register of apprentices for planning and management purposes. It would act as a publicly accessible national database, the data being collected by the training providers.

The Review Group has called for a review of the curriculum in each family of trades ‘as a matter of urgency.’

A key aim is that there would be opportunities for progression provided to people with skills. Curriculum review could be contracted out to education and training boards, or higher educational bodies.

The expansion of apprenticeships into newer occupations in areas such as ICT is seen as vital.

A core idea is that apprenticeships should be employer-led, given the key role of industry as a source of funding and of labour demand.

Currently, employers contribute through the national training fund 0.7% of payroll, worth around €350m a year. Just over €50m is devoted to apprenticeships, which is a low figure by international standards, according to Tony Donohue, head of education at employers’ group, Ibec.

The cost per apprentice is high — leaving total output well below where it should be. This stands at €11, 715 per year, or €35,300 for the duration of an apprenticeship. The pool of people not being reached by conventional education remains high.

By the end of 2012, 17% of the workforce in Ireland had a lower secondary education degree or less (down, admittedly, from 28% in early 2005). Some 40% had an upper secondary qualification and 43% a higher-level qualification. In truth, many graduates would benefit from the specific skills training offered by apprenticeships.

The National Economic and Social Council has recently warned about the significant numbers who are being alienated by our competitive school system. It suggests “we need to rigorously explore the demand for intermediate and foundation skills.”

But will employers play ball?

The Irish Hotels Federation, for example, is seeking subsidies in return for the cost of taking on apprentices and participation in new schemes.

The Review Group believes the public must be brought to a greater recognition of the role of apprenticeships.

With this in mind, it calls for a branding and awareness campaign, complete with high-profile ‘champions’ — bring on Brian O’Driscoll and Katie Taylor — and recruitment fairs.

Ibec is on board with the idea, but is the business community willing to play its part and will public educators make time and resources available?

Will the trade unions accept the necessary trade-offs involved, including a threat to the market share of existing members?

Tony Donohue welcomes the report as paving the way for an enterprise-led approach to skills enhancement among the workforce.

In his view, apprenticeships should be available from the equivalent of Leaving Cert up to PhD level, where they could be offered by the technical colleges and universities.

The progression route must be transparent.

The ‘earn and learn’ model is key. It involves a degree of co-financing, with the employer subsidising by paying a basic wage, the State providing education and training and apprentices accepting a lower wage in return for training.

Mr Donohue argues the State should consider targeting ‘hard to reach groups’ through subsidies to employers ready to hire them.

Skillnets, where the social partners join forces with educators at sector level in upskilling projects, provides an interesting template. However, its budget, at around €15m, remains modest.

Skills enhancement is now an EU priority and funds will be available through the European Social Fund. “We will be definitely pushing the Government to act on the report,” he said.

However, there is a receptiveness there. The Review Group was set up last summer and it reported by the year-end. It received 69 submissions. There is a lot of interest.

One can only hope that the findings will be built on, with detailed costings and pilot projects coming soon. This is one official report that should not be quietly binned and then forgotten about.

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