Further education: Interesting careers and earning at an earlier stage

Data shows that people who leave FET at level 5 or 6 either progress to higher education or go straight into employment

Currently, there are more than 16,000 apprentices and almost 6,000 employers involved in 47 apprenticeships. Photograph: iStock

Currently, there are more than 16,000 apprentices and almost 6,000 employers involved in 47 apprenticeships. Photograph: iStock


“Having 100 per cent progression to higher education can never be right. There must always be someone in a class or a few in a class that are more suited to vocational pathways.”

Those are the words of Andrew Brownlee, executive director, strategy and knowledge, with State training body Solas.

“There’s an attitude, that kind of cultural issue that still needs to be addressed. We need to convince the families of Ireland that further education and training is a valid route. That it gets you into really interesting careers, it gets you earning at an earlier stage and it means you can be equally as successful as if you go into higher education,” he adds.

Ireland in many ways can be seen as almost obsessed in its emphasis on sending large numbers of school-leavers to third-level. Figures released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in January showed the number of students at universities and institutes of technologies reached a record high, with almost 250,000 people studying a third-level course last year. The figures look set to cement Ireland’s position within the EU as the member state with the highest proportion of school-leavers progressing to higher education.

However, a study, also by the HEA, in 2018, showed people’s suitability for third-level is a growing area of concern, with 14 per cent (5,800) of first-year students in 2014/15 not progressing on to the second year of their course. While a degree from a university or institute of technology can help open many doors, training and qualifications from the Further Education and Training (FET) sector is now becoming something that offers many and equal opportunities.

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 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.

Numbers substantial

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

This year, 339,000 people are involved in 25,000 FET courses across the country’s 16 ETBs with an overall investment of €683 million in the sector, up €36 million on 2018.

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 transport and logistics.

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

“The ETBs are key because they are also the ones most closely connected to the communities, employers and learners at regional level. What you are increasingly seeing is ETBs investing in employer engagement resources so that they have people on the ground that go out and are constantly talking to local employers to try and identify what skills need to be delivered locally. They are moving towards a single-point-of-contact type approach so employers in the region know where to go if they have a skills need or need a tight line of talent coming through,” says Brownlee.

Being in touch with industry needs is a key focus of FET, particularly at levels 5 and 6. Generally, all FET courses come with a work placement and Solas is working towards ensuring all PLCs also have a structured workplace component.

Brownlee says these structured workplace components are an integral part of developing key skills. “As part of that [workplace module], you will be working in an environment which develops very practical, vocational skills as well as the transversal skills that are going to enable you to progress successfully in your career when you leave it. We would argue we are much more in touch with the needs of employers and the needs of industry [than higher education] and we are starting to see the evidence for that as well.”

There are skills shortages in science, engineering, ICT, construction, healthcare, business and finance, and transport and logistics. Photograph: iStock
There are skills shortages in science, engineering, ICT, construction, healthcare, business and finance, and transport and logistics. Photograph: iStock

Solas has recently linked up its database with the CSO’s employment database in an effort to track the impact of FET and Brownlee says the data so far is “very encouraging”, with large numbers people who leave FET at level 5 or 6 either progressing to higher education or straight into employment.

Vocational-type skills courses

Given Solas’s emphasis on responding to skills shortages, it has moved away from generic provision of courses such as a broad-based business courses into more specific vocational-type skills courses such as hospitality, health, and childcare where learners can see clear pathways following course completion, be it into employment or indeed, higher education.

And while FET offers an alternative to higher education, Brownlee also emphasises it doesn’t have to be an either/or, option. “Further education and training give you a great chance of going immediately into employment and starting a career, but also a significant number of learners go into it almost as a foundation to give them a platform to progress into higher education. We know for example that one in five of the [annual] intake across the institute of technologies and new technological universities comes from FET so it’s a very good platform for people thinking about higher education but who are not quite sure if they are ready for that step yet.”

Further, through working with the HEA, Solas now has hard evidence that shows that those who do a PLC course compare favourably with those who have gone straight in to higher education with Leaving Cert points of 300 or less, and that they have a better chance of competing their degree.


Solas also works with industry in providing apprenticeships. The number of these has been growing over the past few years and Solas has a target of about 70 apprenticeships by 2020, involving 31,000 new apprentice registrations between 2016 and 2020. Currently, there are more than 16,000 apprentices and almost 6,000 employers involved in 47 apprenticeships.

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 biopharmachem, engineering, insurance, international financial services, ICT, chef training, accounting, auctioneering and property services, and logistics.

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.

Established 2013 following the disbandment of Fás, Solas has spent its first few years getting its ducks in a row. “I think we are at the point now where we can really develop and enhance the sector,” says Brownlee. The organisation submits an FET strategy every five years to the Department of Education and is currently in the process of developing the 2020-25 plan.

“I think the new strategy gives us a real opportunity to position FET as a clear alternative for school-leavers and adult learners at all stages of career. It’s a really exciting time.”

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

Skills shortages

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

Science and Engineering: scientists (chemists, biochemists); engineers ( electrical, chemical, automation); technicians (quality control, process)

ICT: project managers: software developers; IT architects; test/security engineers; technical support

Business and financial: business/financial analysts; data analysts; accountants with industry specific experience

Healthcare: doctors (emergency, anaesthetic, orthopaedic); nurses (staff, registered, clinical nurse managers); radiographers

Construction: civil engineers; construction project managers; quantity surveyors; shuttering carpenters; shift managers, glaziers, steel erectors, curtain wallers, scaffolders; pipe layers

Other crafts: welders; toolmakers; CNC programmers; fitters; deboners

Hospitality: chefs

Transport and logistics: HGV drivers; other drivers (crane, forklift etc); supply chain managers/administrators; planners

Sales, 3M marketing and customer service: There are primarily language skill shortages in the following areas: account strategist; product/account managers; marketing specialists; customer service representatives.