The Irish labour market is experiencing serious capacity constraints as the economic recovery enters its fifth year.
The Government has been taking action by seeking to boost both the quantity and variety of apprenticeships in the system. Increased investment in traineeships aimed at boosting practical training is also taking place.
Few experts doubt the existence of a mismatch between the skills of those entering the workforce and the demands in the marketplace.
Some believe that Irish pupils and parents are obsessed with the idea of a traditional college education as the be-all career solution.
Much of the debate has centered around the issue of university fees. Few bother to question the suitability of degree offerings.
As Pat O Mahony, a researcher with the body representing the country’s Education and Training Boards put it, in 2014: “We have concluded in our euphoria over third level that the jobs market will require mainly tertiary skills.”
He went on to cite studies which show that even in high-tech economies, around half of the workforce will require medium level skills, while 15% will need low-level skills.
Have we allowed a preoccupation with high-tech skills to blind us to challenges — and opportunities — staring us in the face?
The migration that occurred during the bust has left us with a shortage of craft skills, particularly in construction and mechanics.
Elsewhere, many occupations are crying out for people with practical skills.
At the same time, our universities are turning out people, many of whom lack workplace relevant capacities.
This is not to in any way deride the idea of the formation of a cultured person embodies in the vision of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
But too often, people encounter such intellectual offerings, at the wrong time in life. And so we have exam results-obsessed youngsters cramming at university just as they did in secondary school. In some cases, institutes of technology have sought to appease parents and pupils by offering ‘me too’ courses of limited relevance.
Governments’ responses, led by former minister of education Ruairi Quinn, has been to follow the example of countries like Germany and Switzerland by expanding the range of apprenticeships. The baton has since been passed over to Richard Bruton, who has taken over as minister after five years at the Department of Jobs.
The aim is that 31,000 apprenticeships and 19,000 shorter-term traineeships be completed by the end of 2020. Annually, there will be an intake of 6,000 apprentices and 4,000 trainees, spending much of their time with employers and the rest with education providers like the institutes of technology.
The work placement element in the programme can be as high as 70%.
Currently, ony a handful of school leavers are opting for apprenticeships. The scope for improvement is considerable.
A call for proposals for new apprenticeships was made at the start of 2015. Over 80 were received, some more developed than others. In July 2015, 23 new apprenticeship and two traineeship programmes were announced. By the end of this year, 15 schemes should be in place, it is claimed.
Up and running is a new manufacturing engineering programme developed by the Irish MedTech Association together with GMIT, the Galway and Mayo Institute of Technology. The first apprentices have just arrived. On offer are two separate courses, a three-year programme leading to a Bachelor of Engineering degree and a two-year programme leading to a higher certificate in engineering.
Sligo IT is offering an insurance apprenticeship, the first of its kind. Elsewhere, progress has been more patchy.
The question is: Can the concept be successfully sold to the people and firms who stand to benefit?
The idea of the apprenticeship has suffered in a culture which has traditionally equated vocational training with academic failure. But a serious effort is under way to match craft training with qualifications. Moreover, a juicy financial carrot is being offered in the form of allowances to apprentices as part of the deal.
Some remain dubious. According to Adrian Cummins of the Restaurants Association progress has been “very slow and painstaking”. He is frustrated at the lack of commitment on the part of officials to training in his area. The hospitality sector lost out after the disbandment of CERT which provided valuable training for young chefs in particular. Skills shortages are so severe that many restaurants remain closed for much of the week. He adds that officials have told him that there is no money available to pay allowances to apprentices.
Business group Ibec’s Tony Donohoe accepts that progress has been slow, but he believes the corner is being turned. He points to the launch of new apprenticeships in financial services, insurance, electrical engineering and medical devices.
He points to the Skillnets programme, one in which employers, trade unions and educational providers have cooperated to boost upskilling of existing employees. “This new approach is enterprise led. It is based on the Skillnets model,” he said. Mr Donohoe is anxious that Skillnets should receive an uplift in funding following several years in which the emphasis was on training for the unemployed.
He points out that the new apprenticeships could be attractive to those who associate them with traditional trades.
“Take financial services apprenticeships. The company pays the apprentice. The State provides the training. Studies and in work training are combined,” he saiud. The key is that apprenticeships now lead to higher qualifications. Mr Donohoe believes that we will soon have masters apprenticeships. In Denmark, it is now possible to take the apprenticeship route to a doctorate.
In his view, the targets are realistic, with delivery being enterprise led and on a decentralised basis. “Richard Bruton has brought his action plan methodology from the Department of Enterprise,” he said.
Mr Cummins remains to be convinced that a revolution is around the corner. “We are being given lip service. There is talk of a hospitality oversight group. This is a talking shop. The last junior minister for tourism, Patrick O Donovan, was aghast at the slow rate of progress. There are no apprentices yet. No employer has been signed up. If there is no action soon, we will miss out on another year. What we need is a target date for delivery and for people to stick to the target. We could have gone instead to the City & Guilds (the leading international qualifications body) to get our members recognised. If we had done so, apprenticeships would be up and running in our sector.”
If the State gets this right, a big gap in the labour market can be filled with opportunities being opened to young people, many of whom might leave the country, or end up in jobs that do not stretch them fully.
A recent report by Barclays Bank concluded that lifetime earnings of those on apprenticeships match those of graduates. Plenty of food for thought for those of us with traditional degrees.