Urgent investment in apprenticeship infrastructure is needed if the Government is serious about addressing the severe skills shortages in critical areas like construction, World Skills Ireland has warned.
Representatives from the group addressed the Oireachtas education committee on Tuesday as it continued its discussions on the future of funding third-level education.
Thousands of workers will be needed to meet 2030 retrofitting targets, and for the construction of thousands of new homes. Under a five-year plan, the Government wants 10,000 people to sign up for apprenticeships each year.
In 2020, 5,326 people registered for an apprenticeship, down from 6,177 the year before. Last year, the number of registrations improved to 8,607.
Michael Hourihan, a member of the group and the head of craft studies at Munster Technological University (MTU), told the committee that serious investment is needed in upgrading apprentice training buildings across the country.
“In the case of MTU’s Bishopstown campus, there will be a requirement in the region of €30m for the upgraded development of buildings to facilitate the delivery of existing and new apprenticeship programs.”
Most third-level providers delivering apprenticeship programs face the same situation, Mr Hourihan told the committee. Jim O’Callaghan, Fine Fáil TD, said he noticed when he visited the MTU Bishopstown campus that the apprenticeship buildings seemed to be very old.
“There was some very impressive machinery there but it looked completely out of place with the old building.”
Mr Hourihan said: “It strikes me as a very strange arrangement where State funding is provided for equipment, and still no funding is available to facilitate that equipment and to develop buildings in the correct way.”
At MTU, there is one “very expensive” piece of machinery in particular in a very small room which makes delivering a class difficult. “I can't understand how money can be provided for equipment and on the other hand, you're expected to squeeze it into the facilities.”
Later, in response to Carol Nolan, a member of the Rural Independent Group, Mr Hourihan said: “The bottom line is that the apprenticeship section in MTU’s Bishopstown campus was built in 1976. It was a regional technical college back then and the numbers going through at that point were relatively low and the building was fit for purpose at that point.
"Our facilities in the apprenticeship area are used not just by the apprentices, but by the full-time engineering students as well. These students expect, and are entitled to, the best facilities."
Meanwhile, Simon Harris, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, told the committee he expects to bring a memo to Government shortly in relation to a further 1,000 college places for this September. The places will target “high-demand areas where there's both high demand for students looking for it but also skills need, specifically those areas around medicine, nursing, engineering, environmental areas, and medical scientists as well.”
The additional €307m to be provided to the higher education sector is "to get us where we need to get to" in terms of funding the sector, Mr Harris told Malcolm Byrne, Fianna Fáil senator. "It doesn't include demographics. It does include some additional pension requirements and certainly doesn't include the additional places."