Apprenticeships: A welcome growth in numbers

‘Earn and learn’ options are expanding the array of career routes for school leavers

The fact that Ireland has one of the highest proportions of young people with third-level qualifications across the EU is an impressive achievement. However, a significant proportion of school leavers who progress to higher education end up in courses they are not suited to and drop out. This raises questions about the adequacy of careers guidance, but it also challenges us to reconsider the options that best suit young people’s abilities and aptitudes.

Against this backdrop, a 25 per cent increase in the number of young people choosing apprenticeships is to be welcomed. Most of this growth has been in the traditional craft sector, such as engineering and construction, while numbers are rising rapidly in new areas such as accounting, financial services and hospitality. These modern apprenticeships offers education right up to degree or even doctorate level in some cases.

There is strong evidence across the EU and beyond of how apprenticeships are delivering the kind of skills we need in the workforce in a way that is helping to fulfil the potential of large numbers of young people. Countries with well-developed apprenticeships have considerably lower youth unemployment than the EU average. These “earn and learn” options are also more affordable for young people and facilitate a smoother transition from learning to work by combining study and on-the-job experience.

Although recent growth is encouraging, there remains a major gender gap. Last year just over one per cent of those in apprenticeships were female. Progress is being made in securing a gender balance in some newer apprenticeships but the overall gap needs to be narrowed. Young women need to see more female role models carving out successful careers in this area.


Higher education should not be the be-all and end-all for our students. Hopefully, the days of any misplaced snobbery against alternative routes are waning. A quality-assured and well-resourced apprenticeship scheme has the potential to hugely improve national prosperity and cohesion.