CAO countdown: Alternative career routes for school leavers

Post-Leaving Cert courses, apprenticeships are a valuable alternative to the CAO

Even though most of the focus for college choice is on the CAO system, it’s important to remember there are a wide range of other career routes.

The further-education sector has opportunities for students who are gifted in specific subject areas or who may not secure the points they want through the CAO, but who may do very well in a post-Leaving Cert (PLC) course in the area they want to study.

In the past two years there has been an explosion in the number of new apprenticeships offered to students across a wide range of industry sectors, including financial services.

These “earn and learn” opportunities include paid work placements of up to €20,000 per year, combined with study in a further education college or institute of technology. These can result in academic awards ranging from higher certificates (level six) to honours degree (level eight).


Students who opt to pursue further education, provided they secure distinctions in all eight modules of a PLC programme, have a very good chance of securing a reserved place in their preferred CAO course for 2019.

In the past the links between further-education programmes and third-level were largely confined to courses offered within the institute of technology sector, but last year the university sector expanded its engagement with colleges of further education.

This trend is being driven in part by the realisation that students who excel in a particular discipline in further education are likely to progress successfully through a similar programme at third-level.

A database of such linked programmes is available on The most comprehensive source of all CAO and PLC course information is

Practical skills

PLC programmes also offer opportunities to gain practical skills for employment in a trade or craft, such as auctioneering, hairdressing, beauty, or fire and ambulance services. For many, a practical skill acquired within the further education sector is a passport to a well-paid, secure job.

Those interested in a course offered through their local PLC colleges should visit their websites and explore their course offerings.

Places in further education courses are offered through an online application process on each institution’s website, as there is yet no central application process for the further-education sector. There may be a small application fee at that stage.

All applicants are called to interview to determine suitability. If candidates are deemed suitable, places are offered on a first-come, first-served basis in most cases, making it very difficult or impossible for new applicants to secure places later in the year.


Apprenticeships are also bouncing back, after the number collapsed during the recession.

While most of us are familiar with craft-type apprenticeships, there are many new programmes appearing.

These include apprenticeships in insurance practice, industrial electrical engineering, polymer processing technology, manufacturing technology and apprenticeships for manufacturing engineers, accounting technicians, commis chefs, and those in international financial services and ICT.

Further new apprenticeships are to be submitted for validation to Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) shortly and, subject to successful validation, are expected to get under way this year. For more information, visit

Construction is also a big growth area. There is now a dedicated website managed by the Construction Industry Federation ( for young people interested in registering their interest in a particular trade. Prospective employers can contact them directly through this site.

Apprenticeships are going to be a big growth area. There are currently about 12,000 apprentices with 4,900 participating employers and there are plans to expand those numbers dramatically by the end of the decade.