‘Cinderella’ of the Irish education system comes into its own

Solas is responsible for funding, planning and co-ordinating FET programmes while other bodies deliver courses and training

Construction and science and engineering are among the areas identified as havving skills shortages in the State. Photograph: iStock.

Construction and science and engineering are among the areas identified as havving skills shortages in the State. Photograph: iStock.


“Sometimes overlooked, often undervalued” is how the “Cinderella” of the Irish education system was recently described by the new Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris.

Ireland’s Further Education and Training (FET) sector has been around for a long time but the perception of it as a route that is less valid than higher education, “second best”, or limited to a small offering of apprenticeships is still held by some. However, today’s FET sector with annual funding of about €800 million, 200,000 learners each year and 25,000 courses on offer throughout the country, represents a very different reality.

“Further education and training really is for everyone,” says Maria Walshe, acting director – communications and secretariat with Solas. “It’s open from early school-leavers to those who are looking to upskill, to people who are looking to change jobs. And because we cover NFQ (National Framework of Qualifications) levels one to six, the entry point is there for all.”

Founded in 2013, Solas works primarily with the country’s 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs) along with industry and State agencies and bodies to offer a wide range of options to school-leavers, the unemployed and those looking to upskill through post-Leaving Cert courses (PLCs), apprenticeships and traineeships. It also offers courses in literacy, numeracy and technology. While most of the PLCs start in September, many other courses have start dates at various points throughout the year in the 64 FET centres or 293 community-based facilities all over the country.

A recent study conducted by the HEA suggested that just 50 per cent of those with 300 Leaving Certificate points completed their degree

Solas is responsible for funding, planning and co-ordinating the FET programmes while other bodies, such as the ETBs, deliver the courses and training.

The organisation has just released its five-year FET strategy for 2020-24, part of which notes there is a need to increase the visibility of FET options to school-leavers who are often unaware of the courses and apprenticeships available and the stepping stone they can provide.

This is a job Solas has been working on in the past few years and it is no easy task given the emphasis put on school-leavers progressing to third-level in Ireland, often regardless of suitability.

The most recent figures released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) showed the number of students at universities and institutes of technologies in 2018 reached a record high, with almost 250,000 people studying a third-level course.

However, the number of students who drop out of courses at third level is a growing area of concern. A recent longitudinal study of completion conducted by the HEA suggested that just 50 per cent of those with 300 Leaving Certificate points completed their degree.

Another HEA study from 2018 found 14 per cent (5,800) of first-year students in 2014/15 did not progress on to the second year of their course.

In comparison, data analysis by Solas indicates that students who completed a PLC before progressing to higher education had an estimated retention rate of about 70-75 per cent (based on the class of 2012-13).

However, while not everyone is suited to university, neither will everyone be suited to taking on a FET course. Regardless, being aware of all options on offer is key to those considering life after the Leaving Cert, says Walshe.

For some, the on-the-job learning aspect of an apprenticeship with the added bonus of earning money from day one will suit much better than an academic setting. For others, “a PLC might be very suitable for somebody perhaps who is isn’t 100 per cent sure about what third level route they want to go down. The PLC course might be the stepping stone they need to get there. It’s about looking at the options and knowing what the best option is for you,” says Walshe.

Apprenticeships and courses

The variety of the 55 apprenticeships offered through Solas range from the traditional craft apprenticeships, such as plastering, plumbing and mechanics, to newer apprenticeships in accounting, financial services, auctioneering and biopharmachem. Most apprenticeships, including the craft apprenticeships have a combination of on-the-job learning, of, for example, four days a week, with classes in either a local education centre or a third-level institution on the fifth day.

As with all FET courses, apprenticeships are not just for school leavers but are also an option for those interested in changing jobs or upskilling. For example, University of Limerick has now become Ireland’s first university to offer apprenticeships from level 7 (Diploma) to level 10 (Doctorate) in areas such as supply chain logistics and equipment systems engineering.

While apprenticeships can last a number of years, courses such as PLCs tend to be shorter and follow the academic calendar. Progression to either employment or third-level education typically follow upon completion and the hugely flexible nature of FET allows people to progress at their own rate.

Walshe cites the example of a woman who spoke at the launch of the new Solas strategy, who left school at 14 and is now about to begin a PhD in Maynooth University.

“She’s just a really good example of how the system works,” says Walshe. “After dropping out she went and did a Youthreach course, which is part of FET. When she completed that she had her first child who was ill and she was out of work for a year or two. Then she came back in through a back-to-education course, progressed from that on to a post-Leaving Cert course, progressed from that on to a degree course in Carlow and then on to a master’s course in Maynooth. She’s just got a scholarship to study her PhD. So that’s a really good example of what is quite unique about further education and training. You can work your way through the pathways and on to third level once you are finished.”

Many others who engage in FET find employment following completion of their course. Solas analysis has found that 52 per cent of FET graduates from labour market-focused FET programmes secured some form of employment in 2018, with 44 per cent in sustainable employment for at least three months and 30 per cent taking up sustainable employment after completion of the course.

However, coronavirus and Brexit are big threats to the economy, something Solas acknowledges in its five-year strategy and which the organisation is prepared to respond strongly to, says Walshe.

“We have a long history of labour market activation and for people who have unfortunately lost their jobs, we are looking at programmes that we can put on for them now so that they will be able to upskill quickly and maybe pivot into new roles. There is a new programme that we have called Skills to Compete, that is a short programme that’s looking at upskilling people who were, for example, working in the tourism sector. They may not have digital skills and if you provide them with these they can, maybe combined with their customer service skills, move into a new space. That is where further education and training really kind of comes into its own.”

At the beginning of lockdown, Solas opened up its online learning portal to everyone, free of charge, regardless of whether they were unemployed or not. It was also able to quickly respond to a need for courses in infection control and remote working, which they ran online.

For upcoming courses, Walshe says the ETBs “are working feverishly to work out what the year will look like. I think they will have to do have some aspect of on-campus learning and then that will be combined then with online learning as well . . . It is a combined flexible approach where the focus really has to be on the learner.”

Skills shortages

Prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Skills Bulletin (October 2019), produced by the Skills and Labour Market Research Unit, identified a number of skills shortages, including:

  • Science & Engineering: scientists (chemists, biochemists); engineers (including electrical, chemical, automation, validation, process, quality control, design); technicians (quality control, process).
  • IT: software developers/engineers (including DevOps); web developers (UX/UI), IT architects; test systems, network, security engineers; technicians (technical support, systems/database administrators) with language skills.
  • Business & Financial: business intelligence and risk analysts; financial analysts; data analysts.
  • Healthcare: specialist doctors and general practitioners; nurses (staff, registered, clinical nurse managers, advanced nurse practitioners); radiographers.
  • Construction: civil engineers, construction project managers, quantity surveyors; carpenters, glaziers, steel erectors/fixers, curtain wallers; scaffolders, pipe layers. 
  • Other crafts: welders (eg TIG/MIG); toolmakers, CNC programmers, fitters and electricians.
  • Hospitality: chefs (although the Covid-19 pandemic has likely reduced the demand for chefs in the short term).
  • Transport & Logistics: construction site drivers; HGV drivers. Brexit may have an impact on the demand for logistics managers and freight forwarders, supply chain administrators/planners (junior roles).
  • Sales, Marketing & Customer Service: product/account managers; candidates with language skills were also in demand for roles as sales executives in the ICT sector; marketing specialists (including digital); contact centre agents, customer service representatives.