Third-level education: Finding alternative paths to where you're going

PLCs, apprenticeships and traineeships offer a wide range of opportunities

‘I wouldn’t be where I am without the PLC,’ says student Niamh Dolan. Photograph: iStock

Did you miss out on the college course you really wanted? Or perhaps you’re looking at all the coverage of third-level and deciding it might not be for you? You have many other options and wherever you go it will be another stage in your education, rather than the end of it. Here we look at the experience of three people who took an alternative route to third-level.

Post Leaving Cert courses

When Niamh Dolan's CAO offer came in, she hesitated. Was this what she really wanted?

"Over the summer, I'd been working for Tara Stud, " she says. "I was really enjoying working with horses, and then I got an offer of business in TU Dublin. But I wasn't ready, it wasn't what I wanted to do and I wasn't confident that I would commit to a business degree."

Dolan spoke to her mother, who advised her that she couldn’t turn down a college course without some kind of plan.


"She understood that I didn't want this course, but she didn't want me doing nothing. All my friends were going to college and I wondered if I was making the right decision. A PLC wasn't part of the plan at first, and I decided I'd continue with Tara Stud and finish out the foaling season. When that ended the following spring, Tara Stud suggested I go to Australia, where the seasons are reversed, and work with them. So at the age of 19, that's what I did.

"Over there, I met loads of Irish people who had gone to college. Some had done equine science, some had done business courses, but they all talked about how they enjoyed it. So I contacted Dunboyne College, explaining I wanted to do their equine science course but didn't want to cut my time short."

Following her PLC, Niamh Dolan has just completed her first year on Maynooth University’s equine business course and is now working part-time with Aidan O’Brien

Dolan was allowed to start the level-five course remotely as long as she returned for the Christmas exams. She spent two months in class before Covid-19 hit and learning became remote.

Like a lot of PLC courses, this one opened up a college place for Dolan, who has just completed her first year on Maynooth University's equine business course. She is now working part-time with Aidan O'Brien, a top trainer with Ballydoyle Stables in Co Tipperary.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without the PLC,” she says. “It gave me confidence and bridged that huge jump between school and college. I even knew more about referencing than my college classmates.”

PLC courses are usually a year in duration, though sometimes run for two years, and are offered by education and training boards throughout the country. To see the full range of PLC courses on offer nationwide, check out


Apprenticeships have come a long way in the past decade, expanding beyond their original focus on crafts such as carpentry, plumbing and motor mechanics to include qualifications such as accounting, international financial services, insurance technician, recruitment, biopharma, arboriculture and more.

Unlike a college course, which will cost you money, apprentices are paid while they learn both on the job and in class or virtual settings. Graduates of apprentice courses usually come out with a qualification between level six (higher certificate) and level eight (higher degree) on the National Framework of Qualifications, although some apprentice courses now run at level nine (postgraduate degree) and even level 10 (doctoral degree).

New apprenticeships come on stream all the time, and one of the newer options is the advanced healthcare professional apprenticeship at Griffith College Dublin, which recently had its first intake.

Unlike a college course, which will cost you money, apprentices are paid while they learn both on the job and in class or virtual settings. Photograph: iStock

Jonathan Murphy is head of apprenticeship services at Griffith.

“This course has been a long time coming,” he says. “It’s designed to bring people’s formal qualifications in line with the experience of their work. In nursing homes, senior healthcare assistant roles are being created which provide higher levels of support for nursing staff but there wasn’t the progression opportunity. This new apprenticeship is a two-year, level-six programme leading to a higher certificate in healthcare support practice award.”

The Covid-19 pandemic delayed the rollout of the course because nursing homes, private hospitals and care settings could not release staff and it wasn’t initially possible to have students get the on-the-job training necessary. Now, however, it is up and running, with learners spending one day a week in the classroom and four days completing their workplace learning.

“Graduates will carry out the role of a healthcare assistant at a senior level, working with a registered nurse to create care plans for each individual and implementing the care plan with the team,” says Murphy. “They will apply anatomy, physiology, clinical skills, caring skills and responsiveness to people with dementia that takes into account the patient’s needs and background. It is a hands-on, senior role that involves supporting nurses with a mix of clinical and social care, and we’re looking for people who are caring, compassionate and empathetic.”

For more information on this and other apprenticeships, see


Adam O’Dea wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do when he finished school.

"I was burnt out from school and the Leaving Cert," says the 22-year-old from Newmarket-on-Fergus in Co Clare. "I did a PLC in Galway Technical Institute, which helped me to realise that I wasn't as interested in pursuing an academic career. My parents wanted me to do something that was right for me, and with my dad working as a tradesman and my mum a hairdresser, they understood what it is not to go to college and still be successful."

Through a friend, O'Dea heard about a welding traineeship with Limerick and Clare ETB. "He seemed to really enjoy it, and so I went on to the coded plate traineeship. There were evening classes two nights a week and it was held locally, so I could get the bus in. On the course, we were given goals to reach independently, while also being supervised and supported. But we were always encouraged to find our own solutions. I was paid a grant during the training, and I have come out with a good skill that can get me work anywhere in the world – anywhere there is metal. I gained confidence and a belief in myself and my abilities."

O’Dea is currently working with Brodeen Engineering, a metal fabrication company based in Tipperary.

Adam O’Dea is working with Brodeen Engineering, a metal fabrication company based in Tipperary

“Traineeships are a great example of work-based learning,” says Alan McGrath of Solas, the further education and training agency. “You spend a minimum of 30 per cent of your time on the job with an employer, and you get the technical skills and training you need while being face-to-face with colleagues, service users and clients – something you don’t get in the classroom. There’s a real responsiveness to industry needs because we know where the skills gaps are.”

Andrew Brownlee, chief executive of Solas, says that traineeships are a response to a changing world. "If you look at the world of work today, there won't be the type of job where you work for 30 or 40 years and then retire, even in areas like retail, baking and construction which worked like that in the past. Unless you continually upskill and improve your digital skills, you won't be able to move up the career ladder. Traineeships are a good start to a career, or a good way to upskill."