The brightest young people go on to third level, and the brightest of all go to university: so goes the conventional narrative.
But increasingly this story does not stand up to scrutiny. Recent figures published in The Irish Times show that up to one in six students are not progressing past their first year in higher education, primarily because they have chosen an unsuitable course.
Meanwhile, there are major skills shortages in key areas of the economy, and youth unemployment still hovers at about 20 per cent.
We have one of the highest proportions of third-level graduates, and yet a report from the OECD last year showed that more than 40 per cent of people are working in an area that does not match their qualifications.
It is against this background that Solas, the further education and training agency, is preparing an overhaul of apprenticeships, a system it acknowledges has for a long time been unfit for purpose.
“We are investing in a fairly radical expansion and modernisation of apprenticeships, and hope to have about 100 options within the next three to five years, spanning all the way from certificate to postgraduate masters level,” says Dr Mary-Liz Trant, executive director for skills development with Solas.
“This is commonplace across European countries. When the apprenticeships come on track, we hope people will see that they offer a strong career path and that they are suitable for a wide range of people, including those who might previously have only considered a traditional third-level course.”
The Swiss model
Solas aims to replicate the success of the apprenticeship model in Switzerland, where 70 per cent of all 15-19-year-olds participate in an apprenticeship.
If it works it could be one of the biggest changes to the Irish education system in decades.
However, for a number of reasons it is a mammoth task. Further education and training has a serious image problem. The Irish Times feeder school list shows that young people from more affluent areas are much more likely to progress to college than to a further education or training course, regardless of whether or not they are suited to third-level education.
There is also significant ground to be made up: the numbers taking on apprenticeships plummeted during the recession, falling from about 29,000 in 2007 to just 5,711 in 2013.
The new model will be a leap into the unknown for Irish education, and many parents and students here have traditionally been somewhat cautious.
“If we’re going to interest young people and their families in apprenticeships, we need to show them a clear progression route both academically and in terms of career progression,” says Tony Donohoe, head of social and education policy at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec).
“Irish people tend to define educational attainment in terms of CAO points scored and third-level entry. We have one of the highest third-level entries in the EU, but we tend to only value higher education, whereas for a lot of people – from all backgrounds – experiential education and vocational training is more appropriate.
“Apprenticeships are not traineeships or internships; they are deep learning for a specific education.”
The gender divide
There’s a risk that the new system will be heavily male-dominated. There are currently about 7,500 apprentices in the system, and just 34 of these are female. Trant says Solas will have a bursary for employers to take on female apprentices.
In addition, as the range of apprenticeship options expands from a base in technical areas such as construction into areas including finance and hospitality, the gender mix should improve.
Solas and the HEA hope that apprenticeships, by giving students direct work experience alongside their learning, will reduce the rate of college dropouts.
This year a ring-fenced fund of €10 million is in place to support apprentices, but Solas says that sustained long-term investment from all stakeholders, including employers, educators and central government, will be needed.
All stakeholders acknowledge that guidance counselling will be crucial to the take-up of apprenticeships, and guidance counsellors will need to be brought up to speed.
In 2012, guidance provision was subject to major cuts, meaning that 168 schools now have no one-to-one guidance at all.
Next month the Department of Education is expected to offer schools an increase in guidance allocation of two hours a week per 100 students.
Betty McLaughlin, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, says that although this is a welcome start, it is still “totally inadequate for the needs of students”.
She adds that “counsellors need to sit with students, exploring their aptitudes and interests, if they are to find the right course for them”. Counsellors will also need to ensure that students are given information on apprenticeships, particularly given the major cultural shift that the increased take-up of apprenticeships will require of parents, teachers and students.
It is a much-needed shift.
"School is designed for particular people with particular abilities, capped with a memory test," says Stephen Power, an apprentice pipe-fitter with Radley Engineering in Dungarvan, Co Waterford.
“There is no acknowledgement that people learn differently and that the points system doesn’t suit everyone,” he says. “A lot of what happened in school seemed irrelevant to me, but I enjoyed engineering. Now I’m in phase one of four years of training, I’m enjoying it and I’m making money while I’m at it.”
THE APPRENTICE: ‘I’M GETTING A GOOD DEAL BY BEING ABLE TO EARN AS I LEARN’
Gemma Linehan (19), apprentice mechanic from Mallow, Co Cork
“I grew up around cars. I was hot-rod racing at the age of 13 or 14.
“In transition year I spent a lot of time in the garage with my dad, who is a mechanic running his own business, Ballyhass Motors. My grandad was a mechanic too.
“I found out that the route to becoming a mechanic is through the apprenticeship system.
“I liked the idea of four years of practical experience and learning to deal with customers in a real workshop. I decided to do an apprenticeship with my dad. I also get to attend classes in CIT.
“Now I’m working in the garage with my father. It’s five months on the job, then five months in college, and then back to the garage.
“There are not many female mechanics. I’m the only woman in my class. I think that women are sometimes afraid of what people will think if they go into what is seen as a ‘boy’s craft’. But I can’t say I’ve ever been discriminated against or made to feel any different.
“And I get paid. There’s a set rate, which rises with each year, starting at about €180 per week plus a travel allowance and rising to about €430 per week in the final year. Most of my friends are in college or they’re farming, but I feel I’m getting a good deal by being able to earn while I learn.”
THE EMPLOYER: ‘A GOOD ATTITUDE AND A WILLINGNESS TO LEARN ARE IMPORTANT’
Padraig Randle of Randles Bros, a motor dealer and workshop in Tralee, Co Kerry
“We currently have two apprentices. One of them has just finished first year and he did exceptionally well, while the other has just started his first-year training off the job and will be away for 20 weeks.
“When we look for an apprentice, we will generally advertise at the local Solas office and maybe through local ads.
“We look for someone who has completed the Leaving Cert with decent results in maths, English and practical subjects. If they have some experience or connection to motor vehicles, that is an advantage, but a good attitude and a willingness to learn are important.
“We give them an initial trial for a week, which we extend to a month and then to three months, after which we may offer an apprenticeship and sign them up with Solas.
“There is a snobbery [relating to] apprentice technicians because they can still be looked upon as ‘grease monkeys’ and [a perception exists] that it is a difficult and dirty job. I believe schools could do a lot more to promote motor technician apprenticeships, but I’m not too sure if they understand the process.”
APPRENTICESHIPS: THE CHANGES AHEAD
- What is changing? Apprenticeships are traditionally associated with technical and practical careers in five areas: motor mechanics, engineering, printing, electrical work and construction. This year, however, 25 new apprenticeships will be introduced, in areas as diverse as financial services, accounting, medical devices, software development, travel agency, butchery, cheffing, warehousing and plastics technology. Many of these are areas where there are severe skills shortages. Also, apprenticeships will now be offered in third-level institutions as well as in further education and training institutes.
- Why choose an apprenticeship over college? Importantly, it's no longer an either/or choice. The new package will include a number of apprenticeships with classes in higher and further education settings. Many higher education paths are already apprenticeships in all but name: law, accounting and veterinary medicine all require intensive off-the-job training followed by on-the-job training before full membership of the profession.
- How much will apprentices be paid? Employers will be responsible for paying the apprentice and will be able to set their own levels. The State will not be imposing wage rates, Solas says. The review group recommended that the State stop providing a training allowance, meaning employers will bear the brunt themselves.
- How do students apply? This remains a work in progress. The first set of new apprenticeships will become available in September. Solas says it intends to provide information to schools, particularly to guidance counsellors, in the coming months, which will run alongside a national campaign.
[ solas.ie ]