WHEN Aisling Devitt was in her final years of second-level, she was quite sure she was interested in and well able for college life. After getting good advice from her teachers and guidance counsellor, she applied for and got into a marketing degree course at Dublin Institute of Technology in late 2014.
“I always thought I wanted to go into business, I always enjoyed studying business at school. And I always thought I’d like the whole idea of going to college,” said Aisling, 21, who is now one of dozens of apprentice insurance practitioners.
But while she was able to meet the very different requirements for regular assignments, even with her ability to fulfil the academic independence, it was quite a struggle to juggle commuting, working and college deadlines.
Living and working part-time in Kildare, she was getting a bus to Dublin early in the mornings and back again in the evenings for shifts at a McDonald’s.
“You need an extra bit of money as a student. I was fortunate coming from Celbridge to be just a bus ride from college. But trying to get to college every day, I wanted to keep up the part-time job,” said Aisling.
“Everyone knows when you go to college, you’re working off your own bat. I struggled to meet the deadlines, particularly with a part-time job. You might have lectures early in the morning, and it’s harder to get to them all if you’re living further away.”
But as well as trying to find the right work-study balance, Aisling was one of those people who really enjoyed the idea of working. She wanted to get experience of working in an office environment.
With the support of her parents, she decided to take a gap year after first year, taking jobs in Dunnes Stores’ head office accounts department, and later in an administration role at the Teaching Council’s headquarters in Maynooth, Co Kildare.
“I really enjoyed it, and at the end of the gap year I started talking with my parents. I’d wanted to finish my qualification, but I loved working and the independence of earning my own money,” she said.
That was last summer, around the time the insurance industry was launching its apprenticeship scheme to train new entrants to the sector. As a new approach to apprenticeship, traditionally associated with more manual jobs connected to construction, engineering, and mechanical trades, it was the first of several now in the pipeline to be offered over the next few years.
Aisling’s father works in insurance and brought the scheme to her attention as a possible option.
“At first, I was a little bit apprehensive. Insurance was something I never really thought about, even though I was interested in business,” she recalled.
Although still keen to go back and finish her four-year marketing degree, Aisling registered her interest online with the Insurance Institute of Ireland (III), the industry’s training and qualifications body.
She was notified of a number of insurance companies and brokers willing to hire apprentices, and got interviews with most of the six or seven to which she applied.
The outcome was that she was taken on as an apprentice last September by Robertson Low. The brokerage firm with offices in Dublin, Portlaoise, and London is divided into retail and wholesale insurance.
As with all apprenticeships, the focus is about on-the-job training, so Aisling is at the office in Clondalkin in Dublin five days a week. But every Tuesday is an online learning day, which she spends in a quiet room logged on to a live video lecture. The degree she and more than 60 other insurance apprentices are working towards is from Institute of Technology, Sligo, whose lecturers deliver the content.
Her in-work supervisor decides which areas of the business Aisling is working on at the start of each semester. The idea is to synchronise her day-to-day work with the module being covered at the time.
“I’m put in a role where I can learn about that [topic], putting what I’m learning in focus in on-the-job training. So you’re constantly studying for the degree and the III exams,” she said.
As well as the honours (level 8) degree in insurance practice from IT Sligo, which should be earned after three years, apprentices are continuously working towards III qualifications. The kind of topics she’s already been covering during year one include financial maths, sales and marketing, and business communications, while industry exam preparation has included work on compliance and general business practice.
“By the end of the second year, I’ll have a CIP diploma, that’s really vital. And by the end of the third year, I’ll get my degree,” said Aisling.
For someone who was really keen to get into the workplace but also to have a qualification, it appears to be a win-win for the young apprentice.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got a job, you’re getting paid and you’re getting a qualification. And you’re making contacts left, right, and centre.”
Pay rates may vary between different employers, with recognition of the learning being provided to the apprentice. But pay should be in line with industry entry level rates and at least match national minimum wage, while employers must also pay apprentices for the days spent on study and learning off the job.
The earn-while-you-learn model is one that has been long associated with manual and vocational trades, and very much a male-oriented sphere of training. But a range of different sectors are now offering, or planning to offer, apprenticeships in their industry — with an emphasis too on addressing gender imbalances.
These plans have been relatively slow to get off the ground since an Apprenticeship Council was set up to invite and assess proposals from different business sectors, who need to partner with colleges and other training providers to meet the required standards.
About a dozen people have registered since the end of 2016 as apprentice industrial electrical engineers, delivered by Limerick Institute of Technology in partnership with medical technology multinational Stryker. By the end of this month, three more apprenticeship schemes for roles in the medical devices sector should have signed up their first entrants.
Meanwhile, Aisling and 66 other insurance practitioner apprentices have been registered with dozens of employers since last autumn. They completed degree and III industry exams in recent weeks, and continue to meet as an entire group about every two months for face-to-face lectures and other group activities.
Aisling believes the apprenticeship route is a worthy one that should be considered more by students ahead of the Leaving Certificate.
“There isn’t a lot of awareness of it at the minute, but it will be up to us as a group to show with our progress that it’s a good alternative for students coming out of school.
“Quite a few of us have come straight from school after Leaving Certificate, they haven’t experienced college or full-time work before doing an apprenticeship. I’ve experienced all three now, and I definitely feel it’s the best route for me.”
Her belief is that the key to improved awareness and apprenticeships is with schools and teachers, who need to believe in these schemes and see the results for those who enter them.
“I really trusted my teachers at school, students really trust their teachers’ word. The more teachers are educated about the alternative routes to training and work, the more students are likely to go,” said Aisling.