What’s most surprising about apprenticeships?

Is it that it took a recession – and the near collapse in the numbers of school-leavers taking them up – to revive them as a viable option?

Could it be there’s so much more on offer than the familiar craft apprenticeships such as car mechanics, carpentry and plumbing – with new apprenticeships in recent years including auctioneering, biopharma, engineering, finance, hospitality and food, and ICT?

Or is that, despite enrolments increasing year-on-year, more people aren’t drawn to the idea of earning money while they study for a third-level degree or a further-education qualification?

“Before the recession hit in 2008 and 2009, we had about 20,000 people studying apprenticeships,” says Shauna Dunlop, director of apprenticeships and work-based training at Solas, the further education and training agency. “When the recession hit, that fell as low as 1,200 but, in the space of just a few years, enrolments have risen to over 16,000 – and growing. The set of apprenticeships on offer is also very different to what it was a few years ago.”

The pay is a big draw. “The moment you start on an apprenticeship, you are paid, and you get paid throughout the programme regardless of how long you are on it for,” says Dunlop. “I personally have a family member who has just sat her exams and is drawn to the apprenticeship model because she can work and get paid at the same time as she learns – and have a college experience at the same time. And because an apprenticeship means she would be in the workplace, she’s learning valuable skills such as teamwork and communication. These softer skills are hugely valued by employers and they give her a headstart.”

Solas itself doesn’t set the rates – that’s for the companies to do themselves. Many of them, however, are keen to attract people to their apprenticeship programmes, so a fair wage is a big part of that. So why isn’t everyone doing them?

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“We’re still getting the information out there,” says Dunlop. “Not everyone knows that they will be paid, that they will get up to a level 8 qualification – exactly the same award as an honours undergraduate degree – or that they will still go to college. We’re very focused on getting the information out there to school-leavers and employers, often through apprentices talking about their own experience. We had over 15,000 young people and their families through the doors at our Ireland Skills Live event last March: people are seeing that apprenticeships can be so much more than just a fallback option – for many, they’re a first choice.

Apprenticeships for all

Nikki Gallagher, director of communications at Solas, says the number of women in apprenticeships is starting to rise. “There are almost 360 women signed up now. Yes, that is absolutely still too low, but it’s a steep climb from where we were a few years ago, with only 26 across the whole range of courses. Today, numbers are climbing across both the craft and newer apprenticeships.”

There remain some obstacles. There’s a big cultural shift needed for girls to consider apprenticeships as being “for them”, with the idea of a female plumber, carpenter or mechanic still provoking laughter or jokes from a small but vocal cohort of sexist dinosaurs – but that is changing fast, particularly with young people intuitively understanding there’s no reason at all why a woman can’t be just as good, if not better, at fixing a car.

Meanwhile, some of Ireland’s unusually high number of single-sex secondary schools too often still gender subjects: home economics is for girls, while technical subjects are for boys. As a result, some girls don’t get to take the science and tech subjects that would open up more options for them.

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“More companies are actively seeking to hire women,” says Gallagher. “Aer Lingus, for instance, is proactive in seeking more female apprenticeships on its team and there are growing numbers of women in aircraft mechanics. The ESB is also seeking more female apprenticeships, so they’re going out to girls’ schools and talking with girls about why apprenticeships are for everyone.”

For more details on how to secure a place on an apprenticeship, see Apprenticeship.ie.

Apprenticeships in demand: a selection

Apprenticeships are industry-led and based around the staffing needs of small, medium and large firms so, almost by definition, all apprenticeships are for roles in high demand. Here is just a small selection of the various apprenticeships on offer right now:

Accounting technician: This course leads to a level 6 advanced certificate in accounting and is a two-year programme involving four days a week on-the-job training and one day a week off-the-job. Accounting technicians support accounts’ functions including income and expenditure, balance sheet transactions, statutory returns and payroll requirements.

Other finance apprenticeships include international financial services (IFS) associate, IFS specialist and insurance practice.

Auctioneering and property services: This new course leads to a level 6 advanced certificate, allowing learners to apply for a license from the Property Services Regulatory Authority (PSRA). No registration fee required.

Commis chef: Solas has partnered with the Irish Hotels Federation for this two-year programme, which involves three or four days a week on-the-job training and one or two days a week off-the-job, depending on the time of year.

Construction apprenticeships: These are what traditionally come to mind when people hear the word “apprenticeship” and include brick and stonelaying, carpentry and joinery, painting and decorating, stonecutting and stonemasonry, wood manufacturing and finishing, plastering and plumbing.

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For the carpentry and joinery apprenticeship, students who successfully complete the course will be awarded a QQI level 6 advanced certificate craft in carpentry and joinery. Training consists of four on-the-job phases and three off-the-job phases in an educational organisation over a minimum of four years.

Motor: Apprenticeships on offer here include agricultural mechanics, construction plant fitting, heavy vehicle mechanics, vehicle body repairs and, perhaps more synonymous with apprenticeships than any other, motor mechanics.

A motor mechanic apprentice will be awarded a QQI level 6 advanced certificate craft in motor mechanics upon successful completion of their training, which consists of four on-the-job phases and three off-the-job phases in an educational organisation over a minimum of four years.

* For a full list of all the available apprenticeships, details of the courses and information on how to apply, see Apprenticeship.ie

How to apply: Some practical details

Before beginning an apprenticeship, an applicant must be at least 16 years old with a minimum of grade D in any five subjects in the Junior Cert or equivalent, although some employers may want higher-education qualifications. All applicants must be employed by an approved employer.

If off-the-job training takes place within a higher-education institute, applicants pay a portion of the registration fee.

For some craft apprenticeships, applicants need to pass a colour vision test.

The apprenticeship section of your local education and training board (ETB) will have details of what’s available in your area. For details, see Apprenticeship.ie



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