Fall in apprenticeship numbers last year despite expansion plans

Plan aims to increase numbers on ‘earn and learn’ courses to 10,000 by 2025

There were 5,326 registrations for apprenticeships by the end of 2020, latest figures show. Photograph: iStock

There were 5,326 registrations for apprenticeships by the end of 2020, latest figures show. Photograph: iStock


The number of young people choosing apprenticeships dipped last year, despite ambitious plans to significantly expand the numbers choosing “earn and learn” options.

Latest figures showed there were 5,326 registrations by the end of 2020, down from 6,177 the year before.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said it appeared the pandemic had affected the numbers signing up for apprenticeships in the first half of the year, but they recovered strongly in the second half.

Under a five-year action plan for expanding apprenticeships, it is planned to increase registrations to 10,000 by 2025.

Overall, the number of apprentices being registered annually has been on an upward curve over five years, with numbers climbing from 3,800 in 2016 to just more than 6,000 in 2019.

The range of apprenticeships is broadening to include dozens of new roles in green skills such as wind turbine maintenance and white-collar areas such as international financial services, software and aircraft asset management.

Other figures have shown thousands of apprentices dropped out or left their programmes over recent years.

Over the last five years about one in five apprentices– 5,500 trainees out of 26,000 – left their trades before completing their programmes in areas such as plumbing, mechanics and accounting.

The Department of Further and Higher Education, which oversees the sector, said there are a variety of reasons why learners withdraw from their apprenticeship programmes.

They include withdrawing after failing assessments or pursuing another career and being made redundant and released from employment due to a lack of work.

Students who become redundant or leave their employer for any other reason are entitled to resit their assessments.

The highest number of withdrawals are in the most popular programmes such as carpentry, electrical, plumbing and motor mechanics.

Withdrawal rates for the sector are higher than for higher education where the non-progression rate is between 13 and 14 per cent.

Training backlog

Meanwhile, work is ongoing to clear a backlog of thousands of apprentices who have been waiting up to a year or more for essential training due to difficulties accessing further and higher education campuses.

Many apprentices, such as trainee plumbers and electricians, have been unable to access off-the-job training due to Covid-19 restrictions and face delays qualifying as a result.

The capacity of training centres has been boosted as part of a €20 million fund and apprentices have in recent months been able to return to education campuses to complete practical training and assessment in line with public health guidelines.

The delays mainly affect craft apprenticeships, which account for 25 of the 62 existing available apprenticeship programmes.

Given the practical nature of off-the-job training for craft apprentices, the shutdown of on-site learning activity due to the pandemic had a significant impact on the ability of craft apprentices to progress through their course.

Separately, new figures showed that thousands of students have received overpayments worth several million euro for grants they were not entitled to over recent years.

Overpayments worth €3.6 million were given to more than 4,000 students between 2017/18 and 2020/21. Of this, €1.9 million has been recouped.

The Department of Further and Higher Education said it is the policy of the grant-awarding body Susi to recoup any grants issued to applicants who are not eligible for funding. However, this repayment approach is “sensitive to students’ means and circumstances”.