Ireland: Progress towards a modern system of apprenticeships

A government review has proposed overhauling the  apprenticeships system. The recommendations include expanding apprenticeships to new business sectors with high potential for economic growth and underline the central role of employers.

A wide-ranging review has set out several recommendations for overhauling Ireland's apprenticeship system to meet the needs of a changing economy. The review includes a recommendation to expand apprenticeships into new business and industrial sectors and identifies the role of employers in such an expansion as critical. It proposest that they should identify the occupations in which new apprenticeships could be offered and should pay apprentices' wages in the new apprenticehship areas as well as on-the-job costs.

With regard to existing apprenticeships, the review recommends that programmes should be continued and adapted over time, with issues such as duration and the level of qualifications being decided on a trade-by-trade basis. The curriculum for trades should be examined and updated as a matter of urgency and, where feasible, common modules across apprenticeships should be provided. Other skills such as literacy, numeracy, maths, science and ICT should be integrated into courses.

The review was carried out following  a commitment in the government’s Action Plan for Jobs to deliver an updated model of training. The review report (PDF 2.5 MB)  was published in January. The then Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn welcomed the report and broadly accepted its recommendations: ‘Apprenticeships are essential for the future economy. They should be seen as a partnership between education and enterprise. In order to produce an apprenticeship system fit for the 21st century, we need to have the business community on board.’

Economic change and crisis

The existing apprenticeship system was implemented in the early 1990s, but the structure of the Irish economy and the nature of employment have undergone major changes since that time. In a statement, the minister’s department said that more recently, the impact of the economic downturn has brought issues with the current system into focus, including the dominance of the construction sector and the lack of flexibility.  

The construction sector was severely hit by the economic crisis, with employment in the sector declining from 273,000 (out of a total labour force of 2.23 million) in 2007 to 102,000 in 2013 (out of a labour force of 2.17 million) (Central Statistics Office).

The minister suggested that the major structural reform of education and training currently under way, particularly the creation of SOLAS (the new Further Education and Training Authority) and the establishment of education and training boards, as well as the critical need to align education and training more clearly with the demands of the labour market, made it an opportune time to look at apprenticeship.

He added that he wanted to see a proper gender balance in apprenticeships: 'Previously, the focus on apprenticeships has been in areas like construction that is predominantly seen as a male route into the workforce. It’s time for that to change.'

The review recommends that an Apprenticeship Council be established, hosted by SOLAS but involving an equal partnership and close cooperation between SOLAS and the state-run Higher Education Authority (HEA) in all aspects of planning and delivery.

The review noted that submissions suggested that there was potential to expand apprenticeships into a wide range of business sectors.  It said that employer-led consortia should identify the occupations that are considered by them to be suitable for apprenticeships and make proposals to the Apprenticeship Council for funding.

A ring-fenced fund should be established to promote the development and operation of apprenticeships in new occupational areas. Employers should pay apprentices in new apprenticeship areas and cover on-the-job costs, with off-the-job elements funded by the state. The bulk of the administrative burden should fall on the education or training provider, with completion of a portfolio in the workplace and with a final ‘competence determination mechanism’ at the end of the programme.

Recommendations for existing apprenticeships

The review makes recommendations with regard to the existing apprenticeship trades. It proposes that funding for existing programmes be ring-fenced and the existing apprenticeship programmes should continue until they are adapted over time to reflect the principles below.

  • The curriculum for each family of trades is reviewed and updated as a matter of urgency.

  • Programmes should provide for the appropriate integration of transversal skills, particularly literacy, numeracy, maths, science and ICT.

  • The minimum entry levels needed to complete each programme successfully should be reviewed.

  • A curriculum review should be carried out on the basis of families of trades, ensuring that core common modules are provided to the extent feasible, while allowing for additional specialised modules that focus on particular occupational requirements.

  • As with apprenticeships in new areas, an upper and lower ceiling on recruitment levels should be examined, so that programmes are tailored to labour market needs, while avoiding future skill shortages. The state should not fund apprenticeship costs above the agreed upper ceiling for recruitment.

  • Opportunities for progression should be strengthened, made more transparent and well publicised. The green economy, heritage protection, retro-fitting, sustainable energy, languages and cross-disciplinary skills are all areas where progression options could be developed. A master craftsman qualification should also be considered.

Adapting other models

The review notes that in Ireland the starting point for any consideration of apprenticeship models usually includes a reference to the well-established dual systems of countries such as Austria, Denmark and Germany. However, it notes that much of the commentary ‘tends to ignore the fact that Ireland cannot simply adopt systems that have been built over generations, upon very different economies, labour markets and institutional arrangements’. It adds, ‘this is not to say we don’t have much to learn from these systems. Indeed, this review has tried to distil some of the principles on which European systems are based to inform a model that could work in an Irish context’.

The review acknowledges that the both the OECD and the European Commission have argued that the Irish economy requires a flexible apprenticeship system, ‘where the terms of the apprenticeship depends on the needs of the specific sector’. It concludes that the governance framework and operational arrangements that it sets out are designed to create new apprenticeships rapidly, reacting to emerging needs and towards sectors with high growth potential.

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