Further education and training a real alternative to higher education

Skills shortages identified include science, engineering, ICT, construction, healthcare and business and finance

While traditional apprenticeships such as motor mechanics, carpentry and construction continue, the variety of apprenticeships being offered has expanded into areas where traditionally they would not have been offered. Photograph: iStock

While traditional apprenticeships such as motor mechanics, carpentry and construction continue, the variety of apprenticeships being offered has expanded into areas where traditionally they would not have been offered. Photograph: iStock


While decades ago, higher education would have been preserved for a select few, there is little doubt that progressing on to a university or institute of technology after the Leaving Cert has become the new normal. The emphasis placed on travelling through the CAO route sees Ireland send more students to third-level than any other country in the EU.

However, suitability for third-level is a growing area of concern with a Higher Education Authority study earlier this year showing about 14 per cent (5,800) of first-year students do not progress on to the second year of their course.

Further education and training (FET), however, is now starting to offer a real alternative to higher education, regardless of the number of points achieved in the Leaving Cert.

“I think our time is now,” says Andrew Brownlee, executive director, strategy and knowledge with Solas. Founded in 2013, the State body 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 up-skill, through post Leaving Cert courses, apprenticeships and traineeships, along with offering courses in literacy, numeracy and ICT.

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

“We are a really valuable resource, and I think when people are talking about the funding crisis in higher education, it’s always based on an assumption that we are still going to send over 60 per cent of our school-leavers directly into higher education – to an institute of technology or university,” says Brownlee.

“It’s worth having a conversation about whether there is another option and whether there is a base of those school leavers that actually might be better suited to doing a further education and training course rather than a higher education course, even if that is a progression step into the latter,” he says.

While the option can often be overlooked, particularly by school-leavers and their parents, the number actually engaged in further education is substantial.

This year, 339,000 people are involved in 22,000 FET courses across the country’s 16 ETBs with an overall investment of €647 million in the sector.

Ambitious targets

And Solas has plans to further increase the number of those it engages with. Its Corporate Plan 2017-2019 sets out some ambitious targets: enrolling an extra 10,000 learners per year from 2018; achieving a 10 per cent increase in the number of learners securing employment after their FET course; and a 10 per cent increase in learners going on to other FET courses or higher education.

The array of FET courses provided through Solas is vast, but a key element to course-provision is providing curriculums and training that targets skills shortages in Ireland. Currently the Skills and Labour Market Research Unit (SLMRU), an expert group on future skills needs, has identified shortages in science, engineering, ICT, construction, healthcare, business and finance, and the food industry.

Along with the SLMUR, ETBs also have a significant role to play in identifying skills shortages, says Brownlee.

“The ETBs are the ones that are really connected to local industry and employers so they have a big role to play in terms of taking that national labour market information and translating it to a local and regional level and working out, by contact with local employers, where the demand is.

“Fundamentally they [ETBs] are the ones on the ground and are best placed to judge – is there a demand for this course? And if a person progresses though this course, is there a good chance of employment at the end of of it? That’s why work placements are such a fundamental part of FET, which maybe isn’t the case across higher education. There is a big, big emphasis in most of FET around giving our learners practical work experience as part of their course.”

Solas recently agreed to link its database with the Central Statistics Office’s databases around employment and higher education. By doing so, Brownlee says, “we will know what happened to every learner and that’ll be a major step forward because there’ll be no disputing the impact of FET”.

Given the focus on skills shortages, Brownlee says Solas is now emphasising a move way from “broad-based provision where people might go into FET and do a general cert or general programme like social science or business or arts”, to focusing on more specific areas such childcare, electrical engineering or cyber security.

“You certainly see it, particularly in post-Leaving Cert provision, that move away from that more general type of provision into clearly targeting national skills needs,” he says.

Along with a focus on skills shortages, Solas is also keen to improve “a core function” of FET – learners being able to see a clear progression from one course to another, or from a course into employment.

“We have a job to make sure that the guidance services can clearly articulate the possibilities to the learner and where they might go at the end of their courses, and also in terms of delivering the labour market information that will tell people – if you take this pathway, here are the different occupations and careers that are open to you, and here are the benefits of engaging in those careers. We’re really focusing on that,” says Brownlee.

Providing apprenticeships

Solas also works with industry in providing apprenticeships. The number of these has been growing over the past few years and Solas now has a target of offering 70 apprenticeships by 2020, involving 30,000 apprentices. Currently, there are 13,000 apprentices and about 5,000 employers involved in 36 apprentices.

While traditional apprenticeships such as motor mechanics, carpentry and construction continue, the variety of apprenticeships being offered has expanded into areas where traditionally they would not have been offered. These include insurance, international financial services, ICT, chef training, accounting, auctioneering and property services, with logistics, retail, quality laboratory technician and OEM engineering expected to launch later this year.

Traditionally, school leavers would have taken a place in higher education to access a career in these industries. These paid apprenticeships – usually up to two years with a mixture of on-the-job learning and classroom theory either online or at an institute of technology – mean there are now more ways than one into certain industries, regardless of points earned in the Leaving Cert.

“There is almost a race to go down the CAO route and overlook some of the options beyond that, such as an apprenticeship,” says Maria Walsh of the Solas Communications Unit.

“If you’re the type of person who benefits from learning in a work environment and then having the online learning as well, that is the route you should choose. We’re not saying it’s a second option, it’s an option of equal measure [to a higher education route]. It’s just a matter of an individual being aware of it and choosing the path that suits them best to the career they want.”

For further information on FET see solas.ie; fetch.ie; apprenticeship.ie.

Skills shortages

The Skills and Labour Market Research Unit (SLMRU) has identified the following skills shortages in Ireland:

Science: Supply shortage relates mainly to experienced candidates (eg five years or more) and niche scientific areas typically associated with the pharmaceutical, bio-pharma and food innovation industries. In particular, there is a demand for scientists with experience in compliance, regulatory affairs and new product development. Shortages also identified for chemists/analytical scientists and quality control analysts.

Engineering: Process and design (including research and development); quality control/quality assurance; automation; chemical; validation; electrical and mechanical (polymer engineering/injection moulding); along with technician roles in quality assurance/control, process, extrusion and maintenance.

ICT: Software developers (mobile [IoS/android], database, web, cloud); engineers (network, database, QA, automated performance testers, devops); systems/solutions/database architects; cyber security analysts; network security; business intelligence solutions; IT managers and business analysts (especially systems migration and IT project management); and technicians (troubleshooting, tech support with languages, and database administrators).

Business and financial professionals: Financial and management accountants with expertise in solvency, taxation, regulatory compliance; actuaries; business intelligence and risk analysts; financial systems analysts; data analytics; payroll managers; multilingual financial clerks (credit controllers, accounts payable/receivable, payroll specialists, fund accounting and transfer pricing specialists).

Healthcare: Hospital doctors; registrars; medical specialists; advanced nursing practitioners; registered nurses; clinical nurse managers; radiographers; and niche area specialists (audiologists, cardiac technicians, dieticians).

Construction: Construction project managers; quantity surveyors; building services/structural/site engineers; curtain wallers; glaziers; steel-fixers; steel-erectors; pipe-layers; shuttering; carpentry; shift managers; and supervisors.

Others: TIG/MIG welders; skilled butchers/de-boners; chefs; care workers. The strong performance of the high-tech manufacturing sector is driving the demand for tool-making skills, especially for those with expertise in making highly complex precision tools