Increasingly, there are more options for students outside the CAO. This year, for the first time, students can enrol in one of 23 degree courses in a further education institution, before either exiting their course with a qualification or transferring to a higher education institution where they can complete their degree (see nto.hea.ie for more information).
“The beauty of further education and training, it gives you a chance to try something you might be interested in, without having to commit to a four-year degree,” says Andrew Brownlee, CEO of Solas, the further education and training agency.
“The courses tend to be technical or vocational in nature, and linked to careers in rapidly growing areas like construction, hospitality, technology, the green economy and advanced manufacturing, to name but a few.
“The courses will either take you to interesting or exciting careers, or give you an opportunity to progress to higher education.
“They are perfect for people who are unsure of their long-term career plan, or don’t feel ready for third level, or indeed just want a smaller peer group where they can learn practical, career-focused skills.
“Further education [courses] can lead on to third level, but it is also so much more than a second-chance option for people who don’t do great at school. We know that they can offer something unique by focusing on practical and technical skills that lead to careers that can make you good money.
“They take place in local communities around Ireland, cutting out the need to pay for living away from home and all the costs that come with that. And FET is free at the point of entry, so you won’t be hit with college fees,” says Brownlee.
But what is it actually like to do one of these courses – and where might they take you? We met some people who have undertaken PLC courses, apprenticeships and traineeships.
The apprentice: Mairíde Bennis, manufacturing engineer at Design Pro Automation, Limerick
“In the past few years, opportunities for apprenticeships have grown beyond the familiar areas like plumbing, electrics and mechanics and this is opening more doors for females.
“I’m definitely in a male-dominated career, but I get on extremely well with the lads at work.
“I have been involved in the Facts, Faces, Futures campaign, run by Solas to showcase and celebrate female apprentices, and the opportunities that apprenticeship careers provide for women and girls in Ireland. I wish that had been there when I was in school, when college and the CAO were still highlighted as the number one career path.
“Doing an apprenticeship requires finding an employer, and that can be the biggest challenge; it’s extremely difficult to find an employer that you like, especially because you don’t know exactly what you want. I didn’t even know what apprenticeship I wanted; I loved engineering in school so I had thought toolmaking would be for me but, looking back, I would have hated that.
“But, once you find an employer, it’s pretty easy to get started in your course. I didn’t like the college side of it because I never liked school, and I didn’t want to go to college. But there is going to be theory for any job you do, so I just had to get on with it. And I liked that what I did learn in college, and the theory around this actually related to my job.
“I also liked that I was paid by my employer and that I didn’t have to take a loan or ask my parents for support. As you earn while you learn on an apprenticeship, I was supporting myself, for the most part, while others had to pay fees and the costs of college.
“I learned a lot from my apprenticeship, including what it is like to work in different companies and the different perspectives that people have in the workplace. I got exposed to different elements of the production process, and it really solidified in my head that engineering is for me. I learned that it matters when you love your job, because I know there are plenty of people who don’t.
“Apprenticeship has opened so many doors for me. I can emigrate to another country because my skills will be in demand. And I know that I can move jobs because of the practical experience I have built up.
“I was a finalist in the 2022 Generation Apprenticeship Apprentice of the Year Awards and won an award. My old school asked me back to talk about apprenticeships, and I have realised it is something I am passionate about. I wish someone had come and spoken to us when we were in school.
“I do get asked: do you feel that you missed out on the college experience? The answer: absolutely not. As part of my training, I spent time in a technological university, so I had the student experience, without the costs and the debt. It wasn’t always easy, but my apprenticeship has led me to a career that I absolutely love.
“Doing an apprenticeship is a no-brainer. You get your NFQ award, you get paid and you get practical experience which puts you into an excellent position for career progression. I think they are phenomenal.”
The trainee: Dempsey Maher, robotic welding operator and trainer
“Early on, I knew that college was not for me. I was always hands-on at home, building walls and doing DIY work.
“Sitting down and studying for hours is something I can do if I put my mind to it, but it is not really how I learn best.
“I thought I would like to be an electrician, but I didn’t get what I needed in the Leaving Cert.
“I did some welding work at home and I thought: you know what, this looks impressive, I am good at this.
“I was working part-time as a waiter in a hotel when I decided to see if I could pursue a career in welding. So I started by enrolling for the manual metal arc part-time evening course in Limerick-Clare ETB. I really enjoyed it, and that led me to the full-time introduction to welding traineeship.
“Then, on completion of that, DesignPro launched Ireland’s first robotic welding traineeship, which ran over 10 weeks. And on the back of this, I was hired as a full-time robotic welding operator and programmer for a leading agricultural equipment supplier.
“Today, I am both a robotic welding technician and trainer here at DesignPro, a machine-buildings specialist company working predominantly in the med-tech industry.
“People ask what this involves and I explain that I use my knowledge of welding to programme the robots to do welding work. Like a lot of my colleagues, I love to learn something and then have the opportunity to immediately put it into practice. And I love working in this company – communication is great and there’s a strong emphasis on working as a team.
“In the context of conversations about artificial intelligence taking our jobs, it’s worth pointing out that there will always be a need for people like me to programme, manage and maintain the robots.
“In this industry, there will always be a need for upskilling and reskilling and it’s likely that I will be a learner and a teacher.
“College isn’t for everyone. One of my friends was pushed towards college but he found it wasn’t for him, and he is now an apprentice mechanic. We have to get rid of the stigma around apprenticeships, traineeships and PLCs. Some people thrive better with more emphasis on real world experience; I know I have no regrets.”
The PLC student: Leah Doherty, journalism, digital media and public relations
“I applied to do a post-Leaving Cert (PLC) course during sixth year. It was a backup in case I didn’t get the CAO points I wanted.
“I didn’t get the points, so I started on a one-year course in journalism, digital media and public relations in Dunboyne College of Further Education in Meath. I wanted to do journalism in either DCU or TU Dublin, and this PLC not only offered progression pathways to those universities, but to other creative courses including multimedia and creative writing.
“I loved the course. The modules were so practical. We covered research skills and writing, and we had to write articles for our assignments. We did presentations, putting us outside of our comfort zones. And we made our own radio shows and podcasts. This allowed us to do something crucial in the media industry: build up a portfolio.
“DCU reserved about six or seven places for those that wanted to get in through the PLC route. It was a relatively small number, so we just had to do the best we could. I needed five distinctions to get an offer, but that was still no guarantee of a place in DCU. In the end, I got 10 distinctions.
“When I started in DCU this year, a lot of content in my modules had already been covered in my PLC, right back to referencing and research skills. Because I had done presentations in the PLC, I felt more confident doing them in college.
“From the beginning in DCU, I felt that I knew what I was getting into and the PLC provided me with the assurance that, yes, this was for me.
“I’m going into my second year of a three-year course in DCU, with the option of adding an extra year for a master’s. I know it is a competitive industry and you have to work hard, but I love the modules I am doing now, and I am happy that DCU’s course also involves a lot of practical work.
“With really low fees for the PLC, I feel I really got my money’s worth. I learned so much. Actually, I loved it so much that I think people are probably sick of hearing me talk about it. I am constantly advising Leaving Cert students to do a PLC.”