With the Leaving Cert finally behind you having completed your exams in the midst of one of the most challenging years in living memory, you may not wish to make the step to university level yet, or maybe you want to start earning money sooner.
Whatever your reasons, there are a wealth of options in the further education and training (FET) sector that could be the right choice for you. If you decide this is the path, Solas, the State agency charged with developing the sector, should be your first port of call.
"FET offers different education routes for school-leavers including Post Leaving Certificate [PLC] courses, apprenticeships and traineeships," says Solas spokeswoman Maria Walshe.
“These courses can act as a stepping stone into further learning and higher education, a way to try out an area of learning, as well as being the right course to progress directly into a huge variety of careers.”
Walshe says there are “many advantages” to choosing the FET route including the opportunity to earn and learn with hands-on experience in an apprenticeship or in smaller class sizes with no tuition fees on PLC and traineeships.
The most popular fields of study include engineering, manufacturing and construction, as well as health and welfare. The most popular courses last year were nursing, early childhood care and education and applied social studies.
The most popular traineeships in 2020 included aircraft maintenance technician, beauty therapy, medical administration and outdoor activity instruction.
The most popular craft apprenticeships last year included electrical, carpentry and joinery, as well as plumbing and motor mechanics. Of the newer apprenticeships, the most popular are in the areas of finance, ICT, logistics and sales.
“We are seeing an overall increase in the number of registrations across all of the 61 apprenticeships so far in 2021 particularly in the areas of construction, ICT, finance, logistics and engineering,” added Walshe.
Tony Dalton, director of further education and training in Laois and Offaly ETB (LOETB), says the PLC route is an increasingly popular first choice for students in the midlands.
“Many Leaving Cert students have achieved the CAO points required and have received an offer for a third-level course but opt for a PLC course for a range of reasons,” he explains.
“Students choose a PLC in their preferred chosen subject area to be sure the area they have chosen as their preference is the correct one, as a gap year option for students not old enough or mature enough to leave home, or even as a means of gaining direct entry to second year of a third-level programme from a Level 6 programme, which reduces the cost of fees by over €3,000.”
LOETB has long-established links with third-level institutions including Athlone IT and IT Carlow, which means that learners in the midlands can progress from local PLC programmes at Levels 5 and 6 to a range of relatively local progression options.
A Level 5 science PLC course, for example, offers biology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, communications, laboratory skills, and a minimum of 10 days on a relevant work placement.
Science can lead to the study of agricultural science, food science, biochemistry, biomedical or indeed clinical measurement science. Other popular PLC programmes that lead to third-level progression include art, engineering, social studies, nursing and IT programmes.
PLC courses also provide opportunities to gain the relevant skills required to secure employment in a specific sector. Employment-focused programmes include those in the areas of hair and beauty, healthcare, childcare and administration.
In 2021, a new award in Early Learning and Care (ELC), which aims to provide learners with the knowledge, skills and competencies required to work in the early years sector, will be a "popular choice" for Leaving Cert students, according to Dalton.
In terms of traineeships, LOETB’s most popular courses are in the area of welding and fabrication, healthcare, and there has been a recent increase in demand for programmes in HGV driving, logistics and distribution, and remote working.
Each year, interest in courses is somewhat driven by what is happening in society at large – and this year is no different.
Rory O'Sullivan, principal of Killester College of Further Education and Marino College of Further Education, says climate change and the environment is on students' minds.
“What’s been a great success is our pre-university environmental and biodiversity studies, which goes into the area of sustainability and so on,” he says. “That has progression into UCD and TU Dublin.
“The course involves field testing in water quality and all sorts of things so they get a very good grounding in this whole area.”
More jobs than students
O’Sullivan also says there are enormous job opportunities to be had in the area of customs clearance since Brexit.
“The one that is screaming out for me at the moment is transport, distribution, and logistics programme,” he says. “We have more employers approaching us with full-time jobs than we have students to give them. There is a huge interest post-Brexit in that.
“One of the companies we know has gone from zero to 14 staff in customs clearance alone. We literally have employers crying out for staff in that whole area. We’ve got to a point where we are getting calls on an ongoing basis and we have literally nobody to give them.
"From talking to employers anecdotally, they tell me that is entirely due to Brexit. If you think about it, nobody has been working in this space since Maastricht. The vast bulk of imports and exports has been within the European Union. It takes time to train people.
“As a result, our co-ordinator has pivoted the course towards customs clearance. So, as part of the course, students will get an industry standard qualification in customs clearance.”
The Covid-19 pandemic last year led to an increase in demand for suitably qualified people to work in the area of healthcare in hospitals, nursing homes and in the community.
Extensive employment opportunities with the HSE, nursing homes, and with private care agencies, has meant that demand for courses in this area has significantly increased for school finishers and more mature learners who wish to move into this industry.
In a similar vein, O’Sullivan says there is a renewed interest in courses related to the emergency services.
“That would be very much down to the fantastic job that the emergency services have done for everyone over the past 18 months, and certainly translated into interest in that course,” he says.
“The other area that is generating a lot of interest is our computer networking and cyber security course. That’s a two-year programme and we have a lot of very strong industry links there.
“There is a lot of interest particularly in cyber security. We have students going into a number of big companies for placements with that course.”
In terms of what salaries you can expect to earn, Cecelia Munro, principal of Ballyfermot College of Further Education, says apprentices are paid negotiated rates during their training.
“A fully qualified electrician who is willing to work hard can scale up to earn more than €70,000,” she says.
“However, the electrician who combines IT technology such as building management, controls, or data networking can earn up to €100,000 with the relevant working experience.”
Na Píobairí Uilleann
If you are interested in musical instrument repair and making, you could complete a two-year traineeship in this area while developing your musicianship.
Munro says trainees on this course will learn musical craft skills in Na Píobairí Uilleann (Society of Irish Pipers), while at the same time completing a Higher National Diploma in artist development.
Trainees will be qualified to make handcrafted instruments which include harp, flute and uillean pipes. The salary for an instrument-maker in Ireland is about €30,000.
Elsewhere, Marion College of Further Education offers a traineeship in dental nursing. The starting salary is €24,000 and can rise to €56,000 for an experienced dental nurse.
Due to the pandemic, there has been a big increase in the requirement for digital skills. Munro says the highest salary for a digital media assistant in Ireland is €40,000.
If you complete a Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) Level 5 Certificate in creative media at Ballyfermot, you can begin employment with a starting salary of €27,000 working up to €40,000.
Crumlin College offers a diploma in beauty therapy and students complete two years learning this skill from industry-trained teachers. Graduates go directly into employment and can earn €30,000 a year.
In Co Wicklow, Bray Institute of Further Education offers a barbering course, and a barber can also earn €30,000 a year.
Munro says the Covid-19 pandemic has led to less interest in tourism-related courses, while there is now more interest in journalism and the media.
“Sadly the retail and tourism courses are less popular this year,” she says. “This is linked to the direct impact that these two sectors experienced during the pandemic. For example many street retailers have closed and many small shops are considering reopening options.
“The tourism sectors has been unbelievably hit and, as a result, these courses are not filling. However, as the economy grows and the world opens up again for travel, these courses should regain popularity in the coming years.
“Media and journalism courses are experiencing major demands at present. Again, this can be attributed to the pandemic where reporting and journalism have a captive audience. In addition, the whole area of using data analytics in media and journalism has increased in popularity.”
In the south, Stephen Goulding, principal of the Kerry College campuses in Listowel, Clash Road and Denny Street in Tralee, agrees there has been a fall in the interest in hotel and catering related courses.
“The greatest drop in numbers at the minute is hotels and catering,” he says. “There seems to be less interest this year, and it’s likely the transient nature of the jobs market there due to the pandemic is having an effect.”
However, Goulding says courses related to construction are on the comeback trail. “It’s much bigger than previous years,” he says. “There has been a turnaround there.
“There is a proliferation of construction courses at third level as well. So students see increased pathways in to that area.
“We are also seeing a gender balance there. It’s not predominately males. There are females applying too. We’ve seen increasing numbers of female school-leavers looking at construction and engineering courses.”