Apprenticeship system a vital part of tackling youth unemployment

Germans realise it is foolish to concentrate solely on academic study

Apprentice plumbers competing in a national skills competition this year. Photograph: Alan Betson

Apprentice plumbers competing in a national skills competition this year. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The apprenticeship system of ‘learning while earning’ is internationally recognised as of key importance to developing the economy and reducing youth unemployment. Certainly German and British political leaders believe so.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin last week that youth unemployment was the biggest crisis facing Europe and urged other governments to do more to copy the German system – concentrating on apprenticeships and not simply academic study – to prevent the emergence of a “lost generation”.

She said her country’s tried-and-tested dual system – a mix of classroom learning and on-the-job work experience – was the best way forward at a time when almost six million under-25s in Europe are out of work. She said Germany was now in a position to offer an apprenticeship to every young person who wanted one.

And in the UK, after years of neglect and decline, there is a renewed emphasis on apprenticeships. Prime minister David Cameron said in March this year that apprenticeships were central to rebuilding the UK economy. “I want it to be the new norm for young people to either go to university or into an apprenticeship” he said at the launch of National Apprenticeship Week.

Abysmal

The recent UK figures are impressive. The international awarding body, City & Guilds, has brought employers, training centres and apprentices together to create an extra million apprenticeships in the two-year period from 2011 to 2013. City & Guild apprenticeships in the UK now cover 170 job roles in 25 industries.

And how does the apprenticeship system in Ireland compare ?

On quality, as judged by Ireland’s performance at Olympic Skills and World Skills competitions, it is superb and as good as the best in the world. On volume, it is abysmal – elitist in being limited to 26 traditional trades, and in decline following the collapse of the economy. On structure, it has many defects, including being expensive, having a lack of flexibility as regards duration and training provision, and being totally market-driven.

The last fundamental review of apprenticeship in Ireland was in the early 1990s and resulted in the change from a ‘time-served’ to a competency ‘standards-based’ system, affecting the traditional trades in engineering, construction, electrical, motor and print.

After a very shaky start, the standards-based system got up-and-running and, even though limited to 26 trades, the apprenticeship population in Ireland grew nearly tenfold over the next 13 years to 28,000 apprentices in 2007.

And that was when the cracks appeared, as apprenticeship recruitment took a hammering with the collapse of the economy, particularly the collapse of the construction industry, where apprenticeship recruitment has fallen to 10 per cent of its peak.

Modern system

So the announcement in May by Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn of a wide-ranging review of the apprenticeship system in Ireland is timely. Many of the decisions made at the last review 20 years ago need to be challenged. They have no place in a modern system of apprenticeships.

The duration of apprenticeship should not be a standard four years. The primary determination of duration should be the time necessary to acquire the f knowledge and skill required. For instance, it is ridiculous to have the same duration for a plasterer as an aircraft mechanic.

There should be certification at interim stages in an apprenticeship. This would be helpful to apprentices who have been made redundant or for progression to other qualifications.

There should be a flexible approach to the delivery of off-the-job training, including day release, and an abandonment of the one-size-fits-all approach.

The market-driven approach to apprenticeship recruitment should be retained, but the State should only financially support the off-the-job training/education of apprentices up to a certain recruitment cap, and beyond that the industry or individual firm should be responsible.

There should be a major expansion in Ireland of the apprenticeship approach of learning while earning to other job roles, similar to that in Germany and to the recent initiatives in the UK.

A reformed and expanded apprenticeship system should be centre stage in Government policy to rebuilding the Irish economy and to reducing youth unemployment.


Henry Murdoch retired from Fás in 1999 as assistant director general (industry) with primary responsibility for the apprenticeship system.Submissions to the Minister’s review group should be made to Apprenticeshipreview @education.gov.ie by August 30th .

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