Learning on the job?

The low number of apprentices remains a legacy of Ireland’s economic crash, as Eimear Dodd learns

Irish Rail have announced that they will be recruiting apprentices across several trades to begin placements this autumn.

The low number of apprenticeship registrations remains one of the unhealed wounds of the Celtic Tiger crash. In recent years, the government has been developing strategies to expand the range of apprenticeship schemes available in the Irish economy.

The economic recession led to a dramatic reduction in the demand for apprentices in Ireland. In the construction sector, many were made redundant before they had obtained their qualification.

In 2007, there were over 6,000 new registrations on apprenticeship schemes. By 2010, this figure had dropped to 1,200.

Apprenticeship registrations have been recovering slowly since then. Solas, the further education and training authority which manages apprenticeship training in Ireland,  estimates there were 3,700 registrations in 2016.

Annual number of new apprenticeship registrations + 2016 estimate
Annual new apprenticeship registrations 2007-2016, note 2016 figures are estimates quoted in the Action Plan to expand apprenticeships 2016-2020,  Image by Eimear Dodd


In January 2017, Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton TD launched an action plan to expand the number of apprenticeship registrations. One of the commitments announced was the introduction of 13 new apprenticeship schemes by the end of 2017.

The action plan included a cumulative target of 50,000 apprenticeship and traineeship registrations in 120 schemes by 2020.

“It is my ambition to develop apprenticeships and traineeships as high quality and attractive options for school leavers, other learners and crucially for the parents of Ireland who have such an influence into career choice,” said Minister Bruton at the launch.

To reach the government’s ambitious targets, 31,000 apprenticeship registrations and 19,000 traineeship registrations must be achieved between 2016 and 2020. Solas is also preparing a promotional strategy to encourage applications for these schemes.

The number of craft-based apprentice schemes is predicted to remain static over this period,   Image by Eimear Dodd

January’s announcement was welcomed by Ibec, the representative body for Irish business.

Ibec Head of Education Policy Tony Donohoe said in a statement: “Companies will be involved in both the design of curricula and in the delivery of programmes, some of which extend up to degree level. This will ensure the continuing relevance of qualifications in a rapidly changing labour market.”

“We believe that this will offer a real alternative to ambitious and capable young people who may be looking for alternatives to direct entry from school to higher education,” he said.

Earn and learn

Since the 1970s, it is estimated that around 105,000 apprentices have been trained in Ireland. There are currently 27 designated craft-based apprenticeship programmes in areas such as construction, motor, electrical and engineering.

By contrast, Germany had 329  training occupations according to a review by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training in 2014.

In Ireland, the period of apprenticeship can last up to four years. The time is divided between workplace training with the approved employer and off-the job education. Apprentices also earn an income during this period.

Once they have completed their training, apprentices will have obtained a qualification as well as workplace experience that some of their peers may lack.

“It is my ambition to develop apprenticeships and traineeships as high quality and attractive options for school leavers, other learners and crucially for the parents of Ireland who have such an influence into career choice,”

Minister Richard Bruton

Reviews and strategies

The expansion of apprenticeships was recommended following an independent review of training carried out in 2013.

This process coincided with the establishment of Solas as the further education and training authority in place of the dissolved FAS.

Solas’s Further Education and Training Strategy 2014-2019 outlined plans to modernise and expand the apprenticeship scheme. The strategy document also noted that further investment was likely to be required to support the development of the apprenticeship system in Ireland.

A total of 86 submissions were received during a call for proposals for new apprenticeships in 2015.

Insurance Practice is one of the newly developed apprenticeship schemes. The first intake of apprentices took place in September 2016.



It is a three year programme developed by the Insurance Institute of Ireland (III) and IT Sligo.

The structure is designed to allow students to obtain two qualifications certified by the III within the first two years. The apprentice then qualifies with a BA degree in Insurance Practice at the end of the three years.

In addition to Insurance Practice, the International Financial Services (IFS) is another new programmes offering an apprenticeship. It has three levels of apprenticeships that are open to new and more experienced applicants.

A spokesperson for Financial Services Ireland told The City that the IFS apprenticeship is currently in the final stages of the regulatory approval process with Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI).

“There has been a lot of interest from both prospective candidates and engagement from Financial Services organisations since the concept of apprenticeships was launched in 2016. We anticipate the take up will be significant when we have a go-live date from the QQI validation,” they said.

Subject to approval, the spokesperson said that the first apprentices are expected to enrol in September 2017.

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Annual targets for new apprentice registrations 2016-2020, Image by Eimear Dodd

An alternative route

Ireland has a relatively high proportion of college graduates among its adult population. According to the OECD, 43 percent of Irish adults between 25 and 64 years old have completed third level courses. This puts Ireland ahead of the EU average of 32 percent.

Yet, university does not suit every young person.

While third level education is nominally free in Ireland, it can be expensive to undertake a college course. A 2015 survey by the Union of Students of Ireland found that 73 percent of third level students said the cost of college causes them stress or anxiety.

A majority of those surveyed – 63 percent – said that further increases in the cost of going to college would mean they could no longer afford to attend.

For some, apprenticeships may offer a more affordable route to a qualification.

So why have the numbers of apprentices remained low? Perhaps, these figures are partly a response to the economic collapse. Another influence may be that successive studies have linked a third level qualification with higher incomes.

For example, the Higher Education Authority’s What do graduates do report showed that 53 percent of new BA graduates in 2015 had an initial salary of more than €25,000. Salary levels were higher for those who had completed a MA or doctorate.

Yet, not everyone will complete their college course. Research by the Irish Times in January 2017 found that one in six students do not progress beyond the first year of their undergraduate studies. Courses in construction, computer science and business had some of the highest levels of non-progression.

A recent article in the Irish Times quoted comments made by Prof John Hegarty of the Royal Irish Academy to an Oireachtas education committee: “There is definitely, among parents, a snob value in the sense that university and higher education are better and the place to go, even if the student is totally unsuited.”

The suggestion then is that some young people may get more from further education training such as apprenticeships. However, apprenticeships are not without their problems.

One of the most pressing is encouraging women to apply. In 2016, 99% of all state funded apprenticeships were taken up by men. Only 33 out of the total apprenticeship population of 10,315 in Ireland were women, according to the response to a parliamentary question raised by Niall Collins, Fianna Fail spokesperson on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

The economy requires a diverse range of skills across all sectors. Apprenticeships can be tailored to respond to the needs of employers for particular skill sets. The Construction Industry Federation has forecasted that 3,840 trade apprentices will be required in 2020 to meet expected demand for skills within the construction sector alone.
The ambitious targets suggest a collective effort to repair the damage done to apprenticeships in Ireland. Only time will tell if the government’s plans are successful.




This article was updated on 7 May 2017. The number of new apprentices 2016-2020 and the annual new apprenticeship registrations 2016-2020 graphs were altered to improve their visual appearance.


Feature Image by Eimear Dodd

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