The recession has caused many of Northern Ireland’s leading companies to cut jobs and apprentices have often found themselves among the first to be shown the door.
There are currently over 100 apprenticeship frameworks and more than 10,000 apprentices training in Northern Ireland with 2,385 due to complete programmes this year to enter an uncertain workplace.
The numbers of people on an apprenticeships programme is up by over 2,000 compared to this time last year, according to the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL).
However, statistics released in June also showed that some 1,500 apprentices in the province had been released early from their 2-4 year programmes since September last year because of the economic downturn.
Construction, engineering and automotive — which have seen a spike in redundancies during the recession — have been the sectors where apprentice recruitment has decreased most significantly.
Responding to this situation the Assembly’s committee for Employment and Learning has recognised that apprenticeships are vital for the development of the skills our workforce needs in order to compete in the global economy.
As the cutback figures emerged in a report entitled ‘The Way Forward for Apprenticeships’, the committee’s chairwoman Sue Ramsey said that it was essential we find ways to encourage small and medium sized enterprises to take on apprentices as these firms make up the bulk of the private sector here.
Recommendations were handed to Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey who acknowledged that the present economic situation has made it increasingly difficult for would-be apprentices to find paid-for employment while completing their training.
In response he announced a £6.8m boost to funding for apprenticeships and new plans for a programme-led apprenticeship scheme.
It is aimed at giving more 16-17 year-old school leavers the chance to get a full apprenticeship qualification but only spending one day a week with employers on work placement.
DEL already offers to pay the costs of directed training for the duration of an apprenticeship, with employer incentives of £500 to £1,500 available depending on the occupational area being followed and completion of the full framework.
Northern Ireland is keen to make itself a hi-tech, knowledge-based economy but workers with practical skills will still be needed to make that vision a reality.
In the first of a two-part series we talk to two high ranking executives from leading Northern Ireland companies who started out as apprentices to find out how this experience has helped shape their careers, what they think needs to be done to ensure apprenticeship programmes survive the downturn and why it is so important that they do.