More options for school leavers: the apprenticeship route

Image Credit: Sinead Mohan

With more funding being diverted into the development of apprenticeship schemes, will second-second level students avail of these options, or will universities continue to grow in popularity? Aoife Rooney investigates

With university registrations at an all-time high and the largest number of students registering for college being the 2020/21 cohort at 46,200, higher education institutions have never had more success in attracting business. These numbers have exceeded the pre-recession figures of the late noughties, with the push for third-level building over the past decade. Access to university has become more exclusionary with rising costs of living, rent and the student contribution charge increasing 100% from €1,500 in 2010. All of these factors, combined with an ever growing, highly educated workforce has led to an oversaturation of some industries, whereas others are sorely lacking in manpower. The investment in the apprenticeship programmes available to students leaving secondary school aims to widen the career development opportunities of school leavers who do not see a university setting as the right path for them. 

At the end of December, Minister for Further Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris announced that there is to be the development of 17 new apprenticeship programmes aimed at school leavers. The scheme, which included ambitious plans to increase the number of apprenticeship registrations by 10,000 per year by 2025. Some of the new courses being offered under the new development include equine, finance and ICT. The University Observer spoke to Maeve Kelly, principal of St. Clares Comprehensive school in Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim, about the value apprenticeships add to the list of choices available to sixth year students “My experience of apprenticeships is that they’re a fantastic way of gaining hands-on experience in the workplace. It also allows students to earn as they learn, which reduces the financial burden often experienced by college graduates.”

those who may not necessarily want to or have the means to commit to a full time college course to gain an internationally recognised qualification

While factors such as affluence affect a student’s ability to access third level education, proximity to higher education institutions also play a significant role. As outlined in an Irish Times report, poor transport infrastructure plays a large role in inability to attend university. For a rural county like Leitrim, with poor transport links to universities and institutes of technology, they still send a large number of students to university. Maeve Kelly argued that the highest number of university attendees is not necessarily the answer “Schools have been guilty in the past of promoting third level courses, when it isn’t necessarily the right course of action for the student in front of them. It is important that we educate teachers, parents and students of all options available to students. Parents, teachers and students can sometimes feel that because the job market has changed so dramatically since the boom that young people entering the workforce need a certain level of qualification to be able to compete.” The University Observer spoke to Minster Harris’ office, and in a statement established the scheme as being able to enable “those who may not necessarily want to or have the means to commit to a full time college course to gain an internationally recognised qualification, while getting valuable on-the-job experience. Apprenticeships open up exciting and rewarding careers and an apprentice will earn while they learn and build valuable work-ready skills in a chosen occupation.”

This is especially relevant in rural areas where many students are involved in agriculture, and nationally in more disadvantaged areas, Maeve Kelly asserted the importance of schemes such as Generation Apprenticeship for those living rurally “In rural areas, especially locations where farming and a history of farming has been important to families, a student can be interested in the agricultural industry and it is important that we can support them. These students are usually hard working and have a huge amount of skills and can be entrepreneurial. We need to ensure we nurture this talent, college might not necessarily be the right route for them. Generation apprenticeship is a great way to promote the apprenticeship route as a legitimate option, and it has as much validity as other routes.”

Ireland has always had a fascination of sorts with the Leaving Certificate and results in general. Many would argue, the exams are a poor form of assessment, whether a student progresses to an apprentice role, university or otherwise. Schools depend massively on numbers of pupils progressing to third-level as a means of measuring success. Maeve Kelly spoke to the flaw in that system: “There is a huge focus, especially in the media each year when league tables are released which suggest that a good school is a school which has a high level of students transferring to third level. The focus of league tables is too narrow and doesn't in any way give an insight into what is a good school. It doesn't consider students attending disadvantaged schools, who more often can't afford to go directly to college. I am against league tables. The Leaving Certificate is becoming more and more an entrance exam for third level. Allow schools to focus on providing an excellent education, reduce educational disadvantage , provide students with effective Guidance and dont assume that a university degree is best. Schools should focus on allowing every student to realise their potential as individuals, to ensure that they leave school with the skills they require for their future path, whatever that future may entail. In Ireland we can be guilty of promoting third level above other options, academia is not necessarily for everyone.”

We need to ensure we nurture this talent, college might not necessarily be the right route for them

The University Observer spoke to Grace O’Duffy, a student at Alexandra College in Dublin and the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) Dublin City Regional Officer, where similar sentiments were expressed “students are largely focused on universities and often neglect to even entertain the idea of an apprenticeship. I think this trend is not a failure on the part of the students however, but a result of shortcomings in the system overall. Peers, teachers, parents, and media all contribute to the belief that university is the only option for the majority of students. Apprenticeships are very valuable and may suit many students who are better at practical and hands- on careers. “There definitely needs to be more work done on education surrounding apprenticeship options. I think that students still aren’t aware of the huge variety of apprenticeships available. We see a huge pressure placed on students to progress to higher education and a widespread belief that it is the only path to a successful career. It is vital that we continue to work on raising awareness about alternative pathways.”

“I think it is fantastic that in the past few years there has been an expansion of available apprenticeships to include a wider range of sectors. Apprenticeships are an excellent form of education and there is not enough emphasis placed on them in the current process of progression from secondary education.We are happy to see that Minister Harris delivering on the commitments that were set out in the programme of government. Going forward we would like to see a heightened importance and legitimacy placed on PLCs/Apprenticeships while students are still in second-level education and ensuring that PLCs/Apprenticeships are given the same recognition as the LCE as an option for post-second-level education.”

While students hoping to avail of the scheme need to obtain sponsorship from a SOLAS registered employer to become an apprentice, Department funding will see more training for employers to ensure apprentices receive appropriate on the job training. The need for more training was flagged by employers according to Minister Harris’ office “employer feedback during the consultation process of the Action Plan highlighted the need for both financial and non-financial supports. Non-financial supports were particularly important for SME employers. Budget 2022 provided funding for an employer grant of €2,000 for employers of apprentices who do not benefit from direct payment of apprentice training allowances during certain training periods. This means that, for the first time, all employers will receive a level of support towards the cost of training an apprentice.” One of the main added bonuses of the scheme is the fact that apprentices get paid for their work.This opens the programme up for students to get paid for their labour, and gives them the opportunity to earn while developing their skills.

We see a huge pressure placed on students to progress to higher education and a widespread belief that it is the only path to a successful career

Apprenticeship schemes have been included in the most recent CAO form for the first time, which Minister Harris believes will “help to increase awareness of and access to apprenticeship for a new cohort of learners.” As an educator, Maeve Kelly is acutely aware of the challenges facing school leavers, and sees the value in the programme “the academic side of school might not be for them, schools need to support students to make decisions that are right for them, and allow students who wish to progress to apprenticeships have as much validity in their choice. Minister Harris has made progress in terms of promoting the positive nature of apprenticeships, and if the media and industry in Ireland get behind it and speak of it in a positive light, it might allow apprenticeships to be held in a higher regard.They deserve more recognition than they have at the minute.” The attitude that obtaining a place in a university is somehow preferable to an apprenticeship is an outdated and obtuse viewpoint from the perspective of everyone but university management. Going to university should no longer be the ‘done thing’ unless a student will actually benefit from the education to be gained with regard to their career; an attitude that will likely not be welcomed by the higher education institutions across the country.