Alternative career routes boost options for school-leavers

Practical, hands-on courses offer career progression and skills enhancement outside the traditional CAO system

On Thursday last, tens of thousands of places on level 8 and level 6/7 degree and higher certificate programmes were offered by the CAO to applicants who have until 5.15pm on Friday, August 23rd, to accept a place.

What many fail to realise is that there are thousands of other young (and not-so-young) people who do not seek a CAO place, but instead opt to secure places on further education (FE) programmes, apprenticeships, traineeships, or in employment.

With the national and local media focus is firmly fixed on those who secured eight H1s, you could be forgiven for thinking that those who opt for alternate progression routes are perceived as having secured a less prestigious place.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Many courses offer successful applicants career progression opportunities perfectly in tune with their specific interests, aptitudes and abilities outside of the more traditional CAO route

Strengths and aptitudes

Looked at from the perspective of any aspiring student, for a programme of study to be successful it must be a good fit for their particular strengths and aptitudes.

For those who seek courses through the CAO, this will involve several years of sitting in lecture theatres, attending tutorials, writing essays, studying for long hours in college libraries, and taking written exams at regular intervals.

For others, CAO-type courses offered in our universities and institutes of technologies are completely unsuitable learning environments.

Such individuals may enhance their skills more effectively through a combination of observation and hands-on practice – often combined with ongoing practical evaluations to assess the levels of competency being achieved.

In many of our fellow EU partner countries, such practical hands-on courses are seen to be as of equal status to those offered by third-level colleges.

In Ireland, parental pressures can drive thousands of young people down the academic route, where they often flounder and eventually drop out at huge expense to their sense of self-esteem, their parents' bank balance and the tax-paying public.

Thankfully, attitudes are beginning to change, and the wonderful opportunities on offer through FE, apprenticeships, traineeships, and employment are gaining more and more recognition from society at large.


Thanks to rapidly changing perceptions both within Government and among employers, the range of apprenticeship opportunities has really diversified in recent years. Solas is the national body responsible for coordinating the development of a wide range of new apprenticeship programmes in a wide range of areas within our economy.

To begin an apprenticeship, an applicant must be employed by an approved employer. To be eligible, the applicant must be at least 16 years of age and have a minimum of grade D in any five subjects in the Junior Certificate or equivalent.

However, higher educational qualifications and other requirements may be sought by employers. Apprentices pay a pro-rata registration fee if their off-the-job training takes place within a higher-education institute. The registration fee will generally equate to the amount of time the apprentice spends in the institute. The payment of the pro-rata registration fee is made by the apprentice directly to the higher education institute.

For apprenticeships developed before 2016, mainly in the construction and motor sectors, the employer pays the apprentice while s/he is being trained on the job. A training allowance is paid by the local ETB while the apprentice is attending the off-the-job training.

For apprenticeships developed in 2016 and after, the employer pays the apprentice for the duration of the apprenticeship. In all cases, the rate of pay is agreed between the employer and the apprentice. This is creating problems in attracting apprentices into some of the new industry sectors, where employers are either unwilling or unable to pay the apprentices when in off-the-job training or education.

Forty five apprenticeship programmes are currently available, spanning the engineering, construction, motor, electrical, finance, hospitality and food, biopharma, logistics, property services and ICT industry sectors.

The new apprenticeship programmes developed in the past number of years include insurance practice, offered online through IT Sligo, where students work four days a week within a firm, for which they are paid. They receive a level 8 degree following the completion of their programme.

Another recently introduced programme is accounting technician. Launched in September 2017, the apprenticeship is a new pathway to a career in business, accountancy and finance, where apprentices are mentored through a two-year, work-based learning programme. Accounting technician apprentices work four days a week with a registered employer and study one day a week with a local college, on a two-year contract.

Accounting technician apprentices are paid a salary of at least €18,000 a year and their college tuition is fully funded by Solas. The programme leads to a level 6 QQI Advanced Certificate in Accounting. The education component of the programme is delivered in FE colleges in the greater Dublin area, Cork, Monaghan, Waterford and Wicklow.

Further education

There are up to 30,000 places available in further-education colleges throughout the country. They are validated by QQI at both level 5 and 6.

Many students take PLC programmes with a view to applying to a CAO course which reserves a specific number of places for FE students. Others are looking to develop a set of skills in a vocational sphere so that they can proceed directly to employment following graduation.

Mature adults who may have been out of the labour market for many years, due to a variety of reasons including rearing a family, take further-education programmes to bring their skills up to date. Each college has its own unique set of offerings tailored to the needs of their own community.

For example, Stillorgan College of Further Education in Dublin offers a course in regional tour guiding, developed in collaboration with Fáilte Ireland to enable learners to acquire the relevant knowledge, skills and competencies to work effectively as a tourist guide in the Dublin region and surrounding area. It also provides learners with the necessary business skills needed to start their own tour guiding business.

Its animation course prepares students with little or no experience for a third-level course in animation production. With a dual focus on drawing and computer skills, the course covers all the fundamental areas required for a successful portfolio submission. Its art course provides tuition in areas such as drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics and combined materials.

To discover what your local FE college is offering for the coming academic year, go to and search courses under the PLC tag, identifying your county or specific college, and you will find a comprehensive list of all its offerings.


Traineeship is a programme of structured training which combines learning in an education and training setting and in the workplace, aiming to improve recruitment and employment outcomes for participants and increase retention and productivity within industry.

Traineeship gives participants the opportunity to develop cutting-edge skills and knowledge on the job, making them more skilled, more employable and enhancing their career options, and enables employers to access a pipeline of talent and learners.

Traineeships lead to an award at NFQ levels 4-6, or equivalent, and are between six-20 months in duration. They are open to all potential participants, of all ages and backgrounds, and are free of charge. Trainees may include school-leavers, older learners, those in employment and those who are unemployed.

Currently, there are more than 30 traineeship programmes available around the country. This number will increase with the development of more traineeships across a range of industries and sectors.

Existing traineeships include engineering; software developer; animation studio assistant; healthcare assistant; food and beverage service; business administration; medical administration; legal administration; sports, recreation and exercise; beauty therapist; and accounts executive. More information can be found at


With unemployment now down to just over 4 per cent, the labour market is tightening and there are extensive opportunities for young people to access employment in many sectors across the economy.

In many sectors – banking, insurance, the food industry, hospitality – employers see the benefit of recruiting motivated school-leavers whom they can integrate into their overall human resource strategy. Many of these young people progress through education and training as part of their employment contract and progress in time to masters and PhD level.

If you are interested in seeking employment directly after the Leaving Cert or following a one-year PLC programme, the quality of your CV, tailored for each individual employer, is crucial.

Career progression opportunities to suit every occupation interest

Young people and their parents have suffered through years of anxiety, perceiving the CAO and the points race as a huge barrier to career progression in many areas of occupational aspirations. Slowly society’s perceptions are changing as new models of progression are developed.

We are beginning to broaden our horizons to look favourably on the wide range of options open to potential learners, which will meet the needs of all types of learning styles.

There are dynamic challenging career progression opportunities available to suit every aspiring employee, when you consider all the opportunities outlined above.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times