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Many apprentices are now on higher salaries than college graduates. Is snobbery around ‘earn and learn’ options fading?

Record numbers chose apprenticeships last year with many qualifying on earnings in excess of €50,000

When Meghan Russell was in sixth year, she was encouraged by teachers and guidance counsellors to get a college degree at all costs. Looking back, she’s not so sure it was the right advice.

After completing a degree in environmental health at Technological University Dublin, she realised an office job was the very last thing she wanted.

Inspired by her father and brother’s work upgrading their house, she applied to become an apprentice electrician a year later. She hasn’t looked back.

Russell will soon finish her four-year stint as an apprentice electrician with CJK engineering in Dublin. She loves the satisfaction of fitting out new buildings or problem-solving how to rewire older ones.


An added bonus is she will be outearn many of her college graduate friends, with a starting salary of about €52,000. With enough overtime, she says, it could rise to €60,000-€70,000.

“I feel like I have come on in leaps and bounds,” she says. “I feel confident in what I’m doing. It’s very different from college, where I felt I was just scraping by. Now I’m in something I really want to do well in.”

Russell is far from alone. Record numbers registered as apprentices last year amid signs that a stigma over taking up “earn-and-learn” options after school is fading.

Latest figures show there were almost 9,000 new registrations last year, the highest on record, an increase of more than 60 per cent over the past three years. The bulk of new registrations were in construction.

It is a remarkable turnaround. The numbers choosing apprentices fell dramatically following the property crash and economic downturn, when registrations fell to just over 1,000 a year.

Taoiseach Simon Harris, formerly minister for further and higher education, has said an “obsession” with securing a degree in college led many to discount it as an option in subsequent years.

Interest in the area has now rebounded against a backdrop of acute skills shortages, competitive earnings for graduates and new degree-level apprenticeships in areas such as ICT, financial services and insurance.

Educational snobbery is at the root of why it is has been overlooked by so many until now, says Dr Tom O’Connor, an economist, sociologist and former lecturer at Munster Technological University.

“For a long time there has been an image problem,” says Dr O’Connor, who started out as an apprentice pipe fitter when he left school. “The feeling among parents was that apprenticeships lacked stability of employment and status. There’s no cap and gown at the end of it, which the traditional mammy and daddy think is the ultimate status symbol.”

It has been difficult to compete with higher education, which has become industry of its own by trying to boost revenue with increased graduate numbers, he says. “It’s the famous bums on seat argument.”

It is little surprise, then, that proportion of school leavers who progress to higher education in Ireland is among the highest in the EU, as is the proportion of workers who are overqualified for the work they do.

There are tentative signs that old attitudes are changing.

Solas, the State body that oversees apprenticeships and further education, has been leading a “generation apprenticeship” marketing campaign, as well as school visits and large-scale competitions.

Mary-Liz Trant, director of the National Apprenticeship Office, says they are on track to reach a target of 10,000 new apprentices every year by 2025.

“We’ll have a total of 75 apprenticeships available from next month,” she says. “There’s accounting technology, biopharma, social work, even farming and horticulture. It’s a wider variety. People are looking at it in a new ways.”

Deborah Tighe, HR manager at CJK engineering, says secondary schools and students are more receptive than ever to talks on apprenticeships. “We see schools and guidance counsellors are pushing them more. Parents, who maybe face the prospect of paying university fees, are more interested. We were in a school the other day, and out of a class of about 20, maybe eight of them were really keen.”

The Construction Industry Federation, which relies on a supply of apprentices to serve the building industry, says there is no shortage of work.

Dermot Carey, director of safety and training at CIF, says that to deliver Government targets in housing and retrofitting over the coming years, it is estimated that about 50,000 new entrants will be needed. He senses an attitude shift among school leavers.

“We are hearing from students that they want careers that make a difference,” he says. “Building houses, infrastructure, retrofitting, wind turbines. All that makes a difference. There is a good story to tell.”

Inevitably, one of the most compelling stories is the potential for apprentices to “earn and learn”, with the prospect of decent starting salaries that, in most cases, exceed averages earnings for college graduates.

For workers in the old craft apprenticeships, such as electrical, mechanical engineering, construction and motors, pay varies. However, an apprentice electrician can expect to earn about €9 an hour in their first year of learning, rising to more than €20 an hour in their fourth year. Once qualified, the salary for an apprentice electrician starts at about €52,000 a year.

In new apprenticeships, such as degree-level engineering, finance and insurance practice, apprentices can expect to earn €20,000-€30,000 while learning. Once qualified, the salary for an insurance practice apprentice graduate is €38,000-€51,000.

By contrast, latest figures indicate that average starting salaries for college graduates are about €34,000 for those completing undergraduate courses.

There is huge demand out there. Once, I felt like I’d end up emigrating. Now the idea is dwindling

—  Apprentice electrician Meghan Russell

The higher earnings shouldn’t be a surprise, says Trant, given that apprenticeship graduates are established in their fields and have a proven track record.

“There’s evidence to show that apprentices tend to stay with their company for between three and five years after completing their qualification,” she says. “Employers want to keep them; there’s a loyalty there.”

For all these strides, though, there are challenges. The CAO continues to dominate the minds of school leavers, with almost 77,000 applications for college courses this year. Women remain hugely underrepresented in the apprentice sector. There is grumbling over backlogs of apprentices waiting to compete their off-the-job training. These backlogs, says Solas, are on course to be cleared by the end of the year.

Significant numbers are failing to complete their courses as well. While a figure of more than 3,300 craft apprentices who failed to finish their courses between 2021 and 2023 was quoted in the media last week, Solas says this includes those who paused their apprenticeship or transferred to a different one.

It says about half that figure – just over 1,500 – have dropped out of their apprenticeship out of a total of 22,175, or almost 7 per cent, over that period. College dropout rates, by comparison, are about 15 per cent.

“It’s not ‘job done’, but attitudes are shifting,” says Trant. “It is another way of learning, another way of getting into a career. We’re losing that sense of ‘this is something for other people’.”

Russell, meanwhile, feels she has made the right choice and is looking forward to developing a career for herself at home.

“There is huge demand out there,” she says. “All these jobs and projects are going ahead. Once, I felt like I’d end up emigrating. Now the idea is dwindling. I’m hoping I’ll be qualified soon and I’ll be very happy to stay here.”