Irish Economy 2014: Shambolic apprenticeship system gets some attention at last
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Jan 27, 2014 - 8:24 AM

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Irish Economy 2014: Last week, Ruairí Quinn, education & skills minister, published what he called "a comprehensive review of the system of apprenticeships." The belated review of a shambolic apprenticeship system that is the worst in Western Europe at a time of high youth unemployment, was undertaken by an independent group chaired by Kevin Duffy, chairperson of the Labour Court.

This issue could never match the excitement of ministers when doling out public money for university research or paying homage to tech leaders and the Irish Government News Service gave it low priority. Ictu, the trade union congress, ignored the report while Ibec, the employers' body, did issue a reaction.

We said in February 2013 that countries with high proportions of young (under 25 years of age) apprentices relative to the employed population - - Austria, Germany and Switzerland - - youth unemployment was much lower than in other countries.

International Labour Organisation data showed that Ireland with a system restricted to traditional crafts, had 10 apprentices per 1,000 employed, compared with 20 in the UK, 39 in Germany and 40 in Australia.

The new report [pdf] recommends an expansion of apprenticeships to new business and industrial sectors.  It says the role of employers in such an expansion is key, according to the review, and they should identify the occupations which would be suitable for new apprentices. An Apprenticeship Council should also be established and employers should pay apprentices in the new areas for both on the job and off the job periods.

With regard to existing apprenticeships, the review group, recommended that programmes should be continued and adapted over time, with issues such as duration and the level of qualifications being decided on a trade by trade basis.  The curriculum for trades should be examined and updated "as a matter of urgency" and, where feasible, common modules across apprenticeships should be provided.  Other skills such as literacy, numeracy, maths, science and ICT should be integrated into courses.

Ruairí  Quinn welcomed the report and broadly accepts its recommendations: “Apprenticeships are essential for the future economy.  They should be seen as a partnership between education and enterprise.  In order to produce an apprenticeship system fit for the 21st century we need to have the business community on board.

“Education will fulfil its responsibility with regard to the off the job training while industry needs to fulfil its role in identifying the areas for new apprenticeships and ensuring there are meaningful placements.”

Since the current system of apprenticeship was implemented in the early 1990s, there have been major changes to the structure of the economy and the nature of employment.  More recently, the impact of the economic downturn has brought issues with the current system into focus, including dominance of the construction sector and lack of flexibility.

Source: ILO

Major structural reform of education and training, particularly the creation of SOLAS (in effect a rebranding of the discredits FÁS, the State-training agency that became a byword for waste, and the establishment of Education and Training Boards, and the critical need to align education and training more clearly with the demands of the labour market meant that it was an opportune time to look at apprenticeship.

The minister added, “I also want to see a proper gender balance in apprenticeships. Previously, the focus on apprenticeships has been in areas like construction that is pre-dominantly seen as a male route into the workforce. It’s time for that to change.”

The review group also recommends that its proposals be discussed further "with stakeholders to examine how implementation can be progressed as quickly as possible."

Tony Donohoe, Ibec head of education policy, said: "Apprenticeships and other work-based training have a major role to play in helping people secure quality, sustainable jobs. To succeed, however, businesses must be closely involved in the design and delivery of programmes.

"Change is urgently required. The current system is too rigid, it covers too few occupations and it has not adapted to changing economic and technological developments. The new proposals have the potential to quickly create new apprenticeships, respond to emerging needs and channel resources and participants towards business sectors that are growing."

Quinn has requested that this now happen. "The Department will engage with SOLAS, the Higher Education Authority, Quality and Qualifications Ireland and representatives of business, trade unions and education providers to begin this process."

The group’s recommendations with regard to the expansion of apprenticeships to new industrial sectors include:

  • Legislation for apprenticeships should be designed as an enabling framework providing for flexible delivery through a variety of modes, and encouraging innovation and speedy adaptation where necessary;
  • SOLAS should continue to be the national authority with legal responsibility for administration of apprenticeships, while providing for more plural governance arrangements in the future, which will facilitate apprenticeships at both further and higher level;
  • An Apprenticeship Council should be established, hosted by SOLAS but involving an equal partnership and close co-operation between SOLAS and the HEA in all aspects of planning and delivery;
  • The review group noted that submissions suggested that there was potential to expand apprenticeships into a wide range of business sectors;
  • Employer led consortia should identify the occupations that are considered by them to be suitable for apprenticeships and make proposals to the Apprenticeship Council for funding.;
  • A ring-fenced fund should be established to promote the development and operation of apprenticeships in new occupational areas;
  • Employers should pay apprentices in new apprenticeship areas for both the on-the-job and off-the-job periods;
  • Assessment arrangements should be streamlined to ensure that the bulk of the administrative burden falls on the education/training provider, with completion of a portfolio in the workplace, and with a final competence determination mechanism at the end of the programme;
  • "While it is clear that many learners progress to degree level programmes from apprenticeships, particularly within the Institute of Technology sector, progression opportunities need to be made far more transparent for the future";
  • Sustained long term awareness campaigns will be necessary to promote the benefits of apprenticeships to learners, parents, employer, education and training institutions, and guidance staff.

The review group also made several recommendations with regard to the existing apprenticeship trades. Funding for existing programmes be ring-fenced and the existing apprenticeship programmes should continue until they are adapted over time to reflect the following principles:

  • The curriculum for each family of trades is reviewed and updated as a matter of urgency;
  • Programmes should provide for the appropriate integration of transversal skills, particularly literacy, numeracy, maths, science and ICT;
  • The minimum entry levels needed to complete each programme successfully should be reviewed;
  • Curriculum review should be carried out on the basis of families of trades, ensuring that core common modules are provided to the extent feasible, while allowing for additional specialised modules that focus on particular occupational requirements;
  • As with apprenticeships in new areas, an upper and lower ceiling on recruitment levels should be examined, so that programmes are tailored to labour market needs, while avoiding future skill shortages. The State should not fund apprenticeship costs above the agreed upper ceiling for recruitment;
  • Opportunities for progression should be strengthened, made more transparent and well publicised. The green economy, heritage protection, retro-fitting, sustainable energy, languages and cross disciplinary skills are all areas where progression options could be developed. A master craftsman qualification should also be considered.

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