Alternative career routes boost options for school-leavers

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


With the arrival this week of the calculated grades, many former Leaving Cert students will be on tenterhooks as they await the next round of CAO offers which are due to be issued at 2pm on Friday.

What is often overlooked is that there are thousands of students who were due to sit this year’s Leaving Cert, as well as many others of all ages, who will not seek a CAO place, but instead will opt to secure places on further education (FE) programmes, apprenticeships, traineeships, or in employment.

With the media focus firmly fixed on those who secured the most 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. It just happens that these routes are 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 apply for courses through the CAO, they will spend a number of years sitting in lecture theatres or, in our Covid-19 world, sitting at home viewing lectures online, attending tutorials, writing essays, studying for long hours in college libraries, and taking written exams at regular intervals.

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

They 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 as having 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.

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


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 co-ordinating 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 Education and Training Board 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.

Growing numbers of apprenticeship programmes are 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.

Many students take PLC programmes with a view to applying to a CAO course.
Many students take PLC programmes with a view to applying to a CAO course.

Further Education

There are up to 30,000 places available in further-education colleges throughout the country. They are validated by Quality and Qualifications Ireland 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.

A student from a prestigious fee-paying school contacted me in August 2019 having failed to secure a place through the CAO in any of the high points business degree programmes which he had listed.

I recommended that he register for a one-year business FE level 5 programme in a local Education Training Board college. On the basis of his 2020 FE award he was offered a place on his 1st choice business degree programme in Trinity College through the CAO round of offers on August 8th last.

His positive experience of FE was shared be more than 4,000 other students who received offers of places reserved by CAO colleges for such applicants each year. The CAO points scores of those students , in a previous year become irrelevant when they secure a good FE award.

For students who are aspiring for places in CAO colleges through the above route, I can write with some authority about the opportunities offered though both Blackrock and Stillorgan FE colleges, as chairperson of their respective boards of management.

Stillorgan’s College of Further Education 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.

The college also excels in courses in Photography and Digital Imaging, Digital media, Journalism & Digital Communications, and Multimedia Games & UX Design.

Blackrock Further Education Institute courses focus on securing CAO places for their students in courses relating to: business, law, psychology, product and graphic design and computer science.

For the upcoming year, this college is seeing a significant increase in demand for all their emergency and health courses. Indeed, the highly regarded Pre-Paramedic Fire and Ambulance course is now closed to new applications.

Interest is high in all related courses such as Nutrition, Health and Wellbeing, Psychology, Special Needs Assisting and the new Pre-Garda Studies. There is a waiting list of local pharmacies seeking to engage future graduates of the “Over the Counter Pharmacy Assistant”.

The importance of technology skills in the “new normal” is represented by courses in Networking, Security, Games Development and Web Design.

Currently, there are more than 30 traineeship programmes available around the country.
Currently, there are more than 30 traineeship programmes available around the country.

Reskilling in mid life?

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.

In the coming year post-Covid-19, with so many adults having lost jobs which will never return, the Government is focused on providing significant additional upskilling opportunities via the FE option in our ETB colleges throughout the country.

Each college will have its own unique set of offerings, tailored to employment opportunities which can be generated in the locality, tailored to the needs of their own community. Although, current Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines mean all FE colleges will face new challenges and opportunities for the academic year ahead.

The entire sector nationwide is working hard to ensure all its new students will experience the best possible education in a safe, clean, and friendly environment. Whatever combination of face-to-face, online or blended teaching and learning that circumstances may require, all FE staff and students throughout the country will be prepared and equipped for success.

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

To begin an apprenticeship, an applicant must be employed by an approved employer.
To begin an apprenticeship, an applicant must be employed by an approved employer.


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.

They can lead to an award at NFQ levels 4-6, or equivalent, and are between six and 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.

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


In the current environment finding employment is difficult. But there are always exceptions to any rule. There has been a huge expansion in some sectors of the retail economy, particularly in food retailing and home delivery services. Increased staffing ratios in care homes may offer opportunities for those interested in working with our older generation.

If you are young and talented and have an entrepreneurial spirit, seeing a gap in the market in this new world order we are all getting used to, then give it a go. Yours may be the next big idea.

If on the other hand you want to convince an employer to give you a start directly from school, in the present labour market the quality of your CV, tailored for each individual employer, is absolutely crucial.

Career progression opportunities to suit every occupation interest

Even CAO colleges themselves have come to realise that successful students come through all routes.

Some see the CAO and the points race as a huge barrier to career progression in many areas of occupational aspirations. Society’s perceptions are changing as new models of progression are developed.

As a society we are beginning to broaden our horizons to look favourably on the 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 person, when you consider all the opportunities outlined above.