Building a route to work through apprenticeship

Ireland lags countries such as Germany in developing a structure for teaching trades in traditional and new sectors of the economy but new Apprenticeship Council may fill the void

Barely a day goes by without a senior Government minister launching yet another national jobs plan that seeks to get people back to work. It’s easy to be sceptical about many of these initiatives, particularly as they’re usually launched amid much fanfare but without any concrete proposals.

One initiative that may make a real difference, however, is the setting up an Apprenticeship Council late last year to address the low level of apprentices in Ireland. Industry groups, many of which have long called for reform, have warmly welcomed the move.

When it comes to teaching young people trades, Ireland lags far behind states such as Germany, a country that has been widely praised for its approach to apprenticeships. The Irish apprenticeship system currently covers only 27 trades, while the German and Austrian systems each extend to more than 300 occupations at a variety of skill levels. What's more, apprenticeship is seen as the route into work and further career development for many young people in Germany, with between 70 to 80 per cent of those signing up for apprenticeships completing them.

Ireland’s current apprenticeship model was developed in the 1980s and largely implemented in the early 1990s.


In some areas, however, apprentices were blinded by the higher short-term earnings available in low skill jobs during the Celtic Tiger years. The effect of the economic downturn later led to a widespread collapse in demand for apprentices from employers, particularly in construction-related trades.


But, as the economy has improved, there’s now a bigger demand coming for apprentices from both traditional craft professions and modern industry.

According to Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan, who announced the formation of the Apprenticeship Council in November, there is strong take-up of apprenticeships currently available, with the number of those officially signing up to learn a recognised trade increasing by 47 per cent compared to the previous year.

Nonetheless, the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) recently warned of a shortage of young apprentices and said there was a “moral obligation” for those working in the sector to start hiring them again. Official figures show a slow increase in construction apprentices since the summer with an additional 481 people signing up to learn a trade from June to October, with the electrical profession continuing to be the main draw for would-be apprentices.

CIF says, however, there needs to be considerable growth in numbers if the industry is to meet the forecast demand in construction activity.

“Construction still accounts for the majority of apprenticeships in Ireland, but the numbers across all the trades have been diminishing in recent years. This is a worrying trend that could lead to substantial shortages in skilled staff over the coming years as activity in the industry increases,” said a CIF spokesman.

“There is a need to actively promote apprenticeships as a viable and profitable career path. The difficulties experienced by some people who were undertaking their apprenticeship programmes as the economy plunged into recession have created a certain level of reluctance and unease about them. The fact remains, however, that apprenticeships in the construction sector and other industries help provide a route to skilled, respected employment that offers fantastic opportunities at home and abroad,” he added.

The setting up of the Apprenticeship Council follows publication of a wide-ranging review initiated by then education minister Ruairí Quinn in 2013. It not only looked at apprenticeships in traditional trades, such as plumbing and carpentry, but also identified the need for training and new skills in more modern industry such as ICT, pharma and green energy.

The first task of the council, which includes representatives from business, trade unions, education bodies and State agencies, is to issue a call for proposals for apprenticeships in new areas.

"The reform of the apprenticeship systems presents an opportunity for Ireland to enhance its reputation as a producer of highly skilled apprentices, which will in turn contribute to national competitiveness," says Pat O'Doherty, ESB chief executive and chairman of the new council, says. With the ESB'slong history of involvement in the apprenticeship sector, O'Doherty is well situated to speak of the benefits that could accrue from reform.

“A reformed apprenticeship model will provide a way for Ireland to upskill its workforce and optimise the potential of its talent pool in a way that is aligned to the future skills needed in the labour market. Crucially, it provides an alternative to third-level education as a way of learning and accessing the labour market, while at the same time ensuring high standards and a pathway to further and higher level education,” he says.

Tony Donohoe, Ibec's head of education and social policy, believes the new council provides a structure to create new apprenticeships rapidly, and to react to emerging needs and target resources towards sectors with high potential for growth. "We need a model of apprenticeships that actually meets the skill needs of a modern Irish economy and the council will move us towards that. The existing apprenticeship model is too limited and inflexible to function, and needs to be amended," he says.

Among the professions in which Donohoe would like to see more apprenticeships being offered are retail and hospitality. These two sectors, as he points out, account for nearly 25 per cent of total employment in Ireland. He’d also like to see degree-based apprenticeships coming into play. This idea was recently introduced in the UK, with new qualifications in subject areas such as software design.

"To address a parity of esteem issue that judges most educational attainment in terms of CAO points, you need to have progression pathways right up into third and even fourth levels. In Denmark, for example, people can study for industrial PhDs, which are degree-based apprenticeships by any other name," he says.


O’Doherty says the expansion and development of the apprenticeship system in Ireland will offer a range of benefits for those learning a trade. He adds that the new apprenticeships will last at least two years and will combine formal education with workplace training. “It is envisaged that the new apprenticeships model will provide apprentices with an opportunity to move beyond their apprenticeship by accessing higher level education and support. This could mean developing degree-equivalent qualifications or alternatively ensuring a seamless, integrated process to allow apprentices transition to a third-level degree programme,” he says.

Such a move would also be welcomed by CIF, which would like to see a move away from basing all apprenticeships at Level 6 in the National Framework of Qualifications, something the organisation says does not accurately reflect the disparity in learning outcomes delivered through some training programmes.

While optimistic about the role that apprenticeships can play and about the introduction of the new council, the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU) is somewhat wary of the obsession with the need for degree-equivalent qualifications.

“Apprenticeships can be a really good option for people, particularly for those for whom the formal academic route has not delivered and may not be suitable. Developing apprenticeships further could provide a good alternative route into any job, not just the traditional apprenticeships as there are many people out there who learn more through doing than studying,” says Bríd O’Brien, the INOU’s head of policy and media.

Referring to calls to introduce a German-style apprenticeship system here, she notes: “Germany is a very different country with a stronger industrial base, which underpins much of their apprenticeship model. They also have a greater respect for vocational training than we do.

“Ireland needs to value vocational learning more and develop an apprenticeship system that is relevant to Ireland’s socio-economic needs and one which carries weight culturally. This is the real challenge for the country.”