‘Apprenticeships a very strong transition to employment’

Apprenticeships offer a chance to get a qualification and earn at the same time

Matthew Casey: ‘If I’d gone to college it would have taken four years for the degree and another three-and-a-half for the chartered training contract.’  Photograph: Billy MacGill

Matthew Casey: ‘If I’d gone to college it would have taken four years for the degree and another three-and-a-half for the chartered training contract.’ Photograph: Billy MacGill

 

During the last recession apprenticeship numbers plummeted from a high of 20,000 to just 1,000. With another downturn looming, could that happen again?

Far from it, says Alan McGrath, director of apprenticeships and work-based learning at Solas, the further education and training agency.

“Particularly outside hospitality, we’ve seen a surge in interest in areas including information and computer technology (ICT), biopharmaceuticals and logistics, and we had 850 registrations for new apprenticeships between March and June.

“And it’s not just the standard boys-only apprenticeships anymore; those days are gone. We are continuing to work with students and parents to help them understand what they are really interested in and, these days, young people have a growing confidence to say what they really want. Apprenticeship registrations have increased substantially since 2015 with 3,153 registrations to 6,177 by the end of 2019.

“More broadly, we’ve all got a real appreciation for how skilled apprenticeship graduates really are, and how vital they are to society. During the Covid crisis, people either needed or desperately wanted healthcare assistants, barbers, hairdressers and tradespeople. These are not ‘low-skilled’ jobs: they are developed over two to four years in, for instance, traineeships. And the employment can be very resilient; look at hairdressers or plumbers.”

In a time of precarious employment and with the social side of college fundamentally altered – although most third levels are making great efforts to ensure that students still have at least some type of full college experience – apprenticeships offer a chance to get a qualification and earn at the same time.

“This is an immediate and considerable draw,” says McGrath. “Being an apprentice means that you immediately become an employee, and this has to be attractive in a time of high unemployment especially among young people. By the time you finish your two to four years you won’t just have your qualification, you’ll also have work experience that will stand to you. There is a very strong transition to employment and, indeed, many apprentices ultimately stay with their employer.”

Apprentices spend time learning on the job and also do some classroom-based learning, whether in an approved learning centre or on a traditional campus such as the University of Limerick of IT Sligo, so they often get a good taste of student life – even if that is somewhat suspended for now.

“Rates of pay do vary because that is between the employer and employee,” explains McGrath. “On craft apprenticeships such as motor mechanics, construction, electrical and engineering, your employer pays you a rate for while you are on the job, and this is an agreed rate of pay aligned to rates in the sector which increases as you pass through. For apprenticeships that were created after 2016 and in newer areas, all the pay comes through the employer side and is an agreed rate between employer and apprentice.”

McGrath says he is unaware of any changes in salaries this year.

Apprenticeships span from levels six to nine on the national framework of qualifications, with a level eight being equivalent to a higher degree and level nine being a postgraduate qualification.
Apprenticeships span from levels six to nine on the national framework of qualifications, with a level eight being equivalent to a higher degree and level nine being a postgraduate qualification.

Spreading the word has been tougher because of travel and distancing restrictions but, McGrath says, the Generation Apprenticeship competition – where students create a giant letter A using the materials, equipment and tools of their industry – took place online with a theme of sustainability, and entries were dedicated to local heroes working on the frontline, including retail staff, nurses and parents and guardians working through the pandemic.

“We also partner networks so in the IT sector, for example, there are people who help promote the apprenticeship opportunities in their sector. And we have been running a billboard campaign too.”

One area that still needs more work is encouraging more females to consider apprenticeships. “We are making good progress,” says McGrath. “In 2015, we had just 26 female apprentices. Now we have 706 out of 17,965 which, while a steep climb, is not a figure we’re satisfied with. There are cultural and systemic reasons for this. While there are excellent female apprentices in crafts, on a systemic level girls don’t always have the same access to vocational-based subjects in the senior cycle and we need to change this. On the other hand, we are seeing good numbers in areas like insurance, accounting technician and financial services. People have to get all their options – there is more than just college.”

For more information, see apprenticeship.ie

New in apprenticeships

  • Apprenticeships span from levels six to nine on the national framework of qualifications, with a level eight being equivalent to a higher degree and level nine being a postgraduate qualification. In conjunction with Solas, the University of Limerick is also introducing the first doctoral level apprenticeship, where qualified candidates will spend four years working towards the professional doctorate in engineering (DEng); this will prepare them for an academic career and the training to address scientific problems.
  • In July, the Government announced a financial incentive for companies by providing them with €2,000 upon hiring and registering new apprentices and a further €1,000 in 2021 if the apprentice is still working with them.
  • A recent Central Statistics Office report found that more than 80 per cent of apprentices qualified in 2014 were still employed two years after completion of their apprenticeship.
  • A new action plan for apprenticeships is due to be launched this month.

Apprentice spotlight: Accounting technician

Matthew Casey (22) got more than 550 points in his Leaving Cert. It was more than enough to secure a place on UCC’s commerce course.

He turned it down. Instead, he chose to train as an apprentice accounting technician.

“Yes, people thought it was the wrong move,” Casey says. “There is a feeling that the best pathway when you finish is college and that even a seventh CAO choice is a better option than apprenticeship. I have proven them wrong with a valuable qualification, and I got to earn money at the same time.”

Casey initially only applied for the apprenticeship as a fallback option. “But after spending the summer working in a restaurant after the exams I felt that working in a chosen career would give me more experience than college books.”

Casey was in the first-ever graduation class from the Accounting Technicians Ireland apprenticeship programme last year after two years with Crowley and McCarthy Chartered Accountants in Clonakilty. During his two-year course, he learned about tax, law, financial accounting and other practical subjects with four days at work and one day at the College of Commerce in Cork.

“It was a very professionally-oriented course and I’m now on the way to becoming a chartered accountant after only two years,” he says. “If I’d gone to college it would have taken four years for the degree and another 3½ for the chartered training contract; this way it is two years of training followed by a four-year training contract.”

This year, Accounting Technicians Ireland will provide 150 jobs nationwide through its apprenticeship programme. Locally-placed apprentices will earn at least €19,700 a year, and the programme is offered in 10 locations including Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Monaghan, Waterford and Wicklow. Successful graduates may progress to full accountancy with Chartered Accountants Ireland or one of the other professional accountancy bodies.

Michael McAteer is a partner with Grant Thornton, which has 14 accounting technician apprentices who all worked and studied remotely during lockdown.

“It allows firms to broaden client offerings and provide excellent career prospects for students,” he says. “The accounting technician apprenticeship is another way of broadening the Grant Thornton skill base and opens us up to people who have had other careers, not necessarily involving accounting.

“The most important thing to avoid in any business is group think. If all your graduates come through college degree courses, you may find a certain mind set there. I’d encourage smaller businesses to take part in the scheme to ease work flows and mould apprentices into their companies.”