Special Reports
A special report is content that is edited and produced by the special reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report but do not have editorial control.

New pathways mean Leaving Cert finally isn’t the be-all and end-all

Apprenticeships and other qualification pathways have been part of a sea change in Irish education and employment

“The Leaving Cert is not the be-all and end-all.” For decades this weary old cliche was wheeled out around results time, with educators and employees alike droning on about how they “never got the Leaving” and yet thrived in life.

Here’s the thing: it wasn’t really true. Yes, there were exceptions but the Leaving Cert was the only serious pathway to college – and people with college degrees, on average, earn more money.

But here’s another thing: in 2023 it really is true. Over the past 10 years the establishment of Solas, the national further education and training authority, has seen a genuine sea change in education.

Today post-Leaving Cert courses are a valuable qualification in their own right, as well as a pathway to third-level: at TU Dublin, to name just one higher education institution, the numbers entering the university via routes such as Rathmines College of Further Education and Dunboyne College of Further Education, among others, is at least 20-25 per cent of their total first-year intake.


Traineeships, meanwhile, are short, structured programmes allowing school-leavers or more experienced workers to get specific, focused training for particular jobs.

And whereas workers looking to upskill often had to consider a one or two-year postgraduate commitment, the range of continuous professional development options – through Solas, the Irish University Authority or even individual employers – allows people to gain the knowledge they need in as little as a one-hour seminar or a relatively short course of one night a week over a few months.

Another way by which people can take a non-traditional route to education is apprenticeships, which have the unique benefit of allowing people to earn and learn at the same time. There are now more than 70 apprenticeships across a range of areas.

Blake Hodkinson is director of operations and quality with the City of Dublin Education and Training Board.

“Apprenticeship means you are an employee of a company and are receiving a wage,” he says. “They cover areas from traditional craft apprenticeships, such as electrical, through to newer apprenticeships such as auctioneering. Traineeships tend to have a number of days per week based with an employer but tend not to receive a payment. In both the focus is on skills and these options tend to be aimed at immediately entering employment.”

Damian Walshe of the National Apprentice Office says there are 26,000 apprentices training in Ireland and 9,000 employers on board.

“Complementing the highly valued traditional craft apprenticeships in the likes of plumbing and electrical, apprenticeships have diversified into new areas such as insurance, financial services and software development, making apprenticeship a smart option for everyone,” says Walshe.

“As well as developing work-ready skills on the job, learners gain relevant qualifications and certifications that will benefit them throughout their career.”

Jones Engineering is one of the many companies that hires apprentices.

“We recruit over 80 apprentices every year, who go on to become fully qualified mechanical, electrical and instrumentation tradespeople,” says Simon Watson, craft development manager at Jones Engineering.

“Our apprentices receive best-in-class training on-site and across varied projects that positions them for a long and fulfilling career as craft personnel. We train them in-house in specialist areas such as orbital and Tig welding, reading and understanding drawings, sloped systems, bolted joints and the theory of electrical curriculum.

“Many of our apprentices go on to secure leadership roles with the company or pursue further education in courses such as construction/project management, surveying or estimating. We’re really proud of the opportunities we provide to new generations of apprentices and craft personnel.

“We also hire people at graduate level, with roles varying from innovative and technical projects across Ireland to emerging infrastructure projects in countries across Europe and internationally.”

Jones graduates work on challenging projects in a variety of sectors and industries including life sciences, technology, healthcare, retail, commercial and in high tech manufacturing.

“We offer investment in their growth through hands on learning and continuous professional development, including paid study and exam leave,” says Watson. “There are a variety of learning experiences and promotional pathways with opportunities to work abroad on projects with blue-chip clients.”

Watson sees apprenticeships as a great alternative to college courses. Many of Jones Engineering’s apprentices have gone on to office-based roles as project and construction managers, estimators or surveyors, he says.

One currently serving his time, Cork hurler Damien Cahalane, is a GAA All Star Award nominee.

“An apprenticeship has allowed him and many others to earn money and become qualified while learning on the job, opening up exciting and rewarding careers,” says Watson.

Hodkinson, meanwhile, points out that apprentices will be supported through their journey.

“If they have specific needs, they will have support to complete assignments and many of the centres have guidance counsellors who will support the learner on their journey,” he says.

Applications are open year-round, with all apprenticeships leading on to a qualification on the National Framework of Qualifications, from level five up to level 10n (PhD) as well as gaining invaluable on-the-job professional experience with a great employer ranging in size from microbusinesses to multinationals, says Walshe.

Details on the range of apprenticeship programmes and how to apply are available at apprenticeship.ie.

Beyond apprenticeships, Jones Engineering is one of many companies, large or small, that offer employees a wide range of training and supports that ensure continuous upskilling across their career with the company.

“If someone puts their hand up and wants an opportunity to be trained up in a new area, we do our best to accommodate that,” Watson says. “If you want something it’s important to ask for it.”