A major overhaul of state-sponsored apprenticeships has been unveiled, aimed at providing school-leavers with a “viable, legitimate, positive alternative path” to third-level education.
While further education and apprenticeships can be seen by some school-leavers as a second-string option after higher education, Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan said the reforms announced on Thursday would undermine such perceptions.
She said: “From my perspective, this is a very significant change because it is something that has been lacking in the Irish education system - which is an alternative path.
“We have been very much geared towards third level and I am delighted there is this refocus.
" I would urge young people to actively look at an apprenticeship as the foundation of their future career - it certainly worked for Jamie Oliver. "
Some 25 new areas for apprenticeships have been agreed between industry and training agencies, including trainee posts in software development, medical devices, financial services, accountancy, logistics and hospitality.
These include technician and engineering apprenticeships with the Irish Medical Device Association and Plastics Ireland, and trainee chef opportunities with the Irish Hotels Federation and the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
A significant feature of the new apprenticeships is that participants can study to level 7 (ordinary bachelor’s) or level 8 (higher bachelor’s) degree whereas previously the highest qualification was a diploma at level 6.
There is one offering at level 9 (master’s): an apprenticeship as an executive chef through IT Tralee’s school of culinary arts.
Programmes will range in duration from two to four years, and it is expected 50-100 apprentices will be taken in under each heading, creating as many as 2,500 places each year.
Currently, there are 27 categories of apprenticeship available in five sectors - construction, electrical work, engineering, motor mechanics and printing - and together they are due to provide about 3,000 places this year.
Another 36 apprenticeships are under consideration from a total of 86 possible schemes identified by the Apprenticeship Council following an eight month consultation.
Minister of State for Skills, Research and Innovation Damien English said he hoped some of the 25 new apprenticeships would be offered before the end of the year, with the remainder rolled out next year.
Several sectors were facing a “major skills gap”, and he encouraged school-leavers to consider further education and apprenticeships as a first choice option, saying it could lead to a “much more successful career”.
He cited fashion designer Stella McCartney and former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, along with celebrity chef Oliver, as examples of people who came through apprenticeships with positive outcomes.
Welcoming the reforms, Tony Donohoe, head of education policy at the employers' group Ibec said it was important to "to keep up the momentum" with a speedy roll-out of the new programmes.
“There are a further 35 proposals that are not as advanced in their design, but are considered to be of strong merit and worthy of development funding. The forthcoming budget should establish a ring-fenced new apprenticeship fund so that a pipeline of new apprenticeships can be established immediately,” he said.
Ms O’Sullivan said this year’s estimates contained enough money to develop the business plans for the 25 “priority” apprenticeships, and further discussions would take place in Government to agree the next round of funding.
Paul O’Toole, chief executive of Solas, the further education and training authority, said it was encouraging to see so much interest in expanding the programme into new industries and occupations.
He said Solas, which replaced Fás in 2013, was working the further education and training providers to ensure the provision of "21st century, high quality" programmes which are responsive to the needs of learners and the requirements of a changing economy.