Apprentices for home building ‘dropping out to work in fast-food sector’ due to low pay

Pay rates starting at €7.17 per hour are hindering expansion of key skills apprenticeship programmes, says union

Pay rates below the minimum wage and long waiting lists for tuition are acting as major deterrents to those considering apprenticeships in trades that are vital to Ireland being able to address issues such as the housing shortage, craft union Connect has said.

Launching a survey of its roughly 8,000 apprentice members on Thursday, the union’s assistant general secretary, Brian Nolan, said the Government’s stated aim of substantially increasing the number of people embarking on apprenticeships in key trades is almost impossible to achieve when rates start at €7.17 per hour.

“At the moment,” he said, “we have people dropping out to work in fast-food restaurants because the money is so much better. No disrespect to anyone working in that sector for a living but that’s not going to help solve the housing crisis.”

At the end of last year there were 23,140 apprentices across more than 70 employment roles but the bulk related to traditional craft trades, with 10,153 training to be electricians or similar and a further 6,282 heading for other jobs such as plastering, bricklaying or plumbing in the construction sector. Employers report shortages in most of these roles and Simon Harris, when he was minister for further and higher education, consistently said he saw potential for substantial growth in the numbers.

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Connect negotiates national rates, based on a percentage of pay for qualified personnel that increases with each year completed, but says that what is agreed is not good enough, particularly in the first couple of years.

A growing number of apprentices, Nolan says, do not fit the traditional image of people going straight in from school as teenagers. Many more who would like to use apprenticeships to gain qualifications having already worked for a few years simply cannot afford to take the step back, particularly if they have a family and rent or a mortgage to pay.

“There are a lot of very positive stories here,” said Nolan, “and a lot of good employers who contribute a lot to the system and already pay the minimum wage or even the living wage but really nobody should be paid below the minimum and the rates we agree are not mandatory across the sector. We’ve heard of apprentices being paid €5 an hour and that’s legal. That has to change.”

Craig Nelson is a 32-year-old apprentice pipe fitter mainly working at Intel in Leixlip, where he is employed by Jones Engineering. He has no complaints about the way he is treated but says returning to the training having initially walked away from it almost a decade earlier would not have been possible if his wife did not have a good job.

“I hadn’t completed phase two so for me that meant starting back on about €350 a week, which for a 29-year-old was quite difficult, a bit of a struggle. The only thing was it was during Covid when you couldn’t really spend money so it was all just going on bills and stuff like that.”

Covid and a lack of capacity for classroom tuition have prolonged his training so that he will have done more than five years by the time his is fully qualified at the start of next year. For now, he is on about €750 a week, which should rise to about €1,000. After that, there is potential to build further with experience, he believes.

“My grandfather was in Anco [then the nation’s training agency] and my father and his brothers all did apprenticeships and did well out of them, they all went on to run their own companies.

“For a lot of people it’s a brilliant opportunity when they’re coming out of school, you get to learn and you end up owing nothing at the end of it. You can leave and come to it, like I did, but the fact you are going to be earning less than the minimum wage at the start is not very appealing to somebody in their 20s ... realistically, how many people are going to do that? I think if that could be addressed, you’d see a lot more people starting to take an interest.”

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times