Employment Minister Dr Stephen Farry has praised the Belfast Telegraph's new apprenticeships campaign, 50 Jobs in 50 Days, as his department looks to radical reform of the existing system for apprenticeships in Northern Ireland.
Dr Farry welcomed the campaign, launched by the Duke of York last week. "The campaign will reinforce the extensive opportunities that an apprenticeship offers to both employers and young people and I hope that this persuades more companies and individuals to reap those benefits," he said.
The Department for Employment and Learning is collating responses to a consultation, which closes on April 7, proposing reform of the system in which a worker receives a grounding in a trade or profession as well as off-the-job training.
According to 2011 figures, just 3% of 16-24-year-olds in Northern Ireland are in apprenticeships – around half the numbers in other parts of the UK.
Responses to 32 key suggestions in the consultation are now being gathered, and parties have until April to make their views heard.
The department intends to address problems such as a dearth of skills in areas of growing importance to the economy, like IT.
Dr Farry said: "Certainly the new model is intended to be a very radical reform of our current system. We are seeking changes in key areas.
"We want to move apprenticeships up the skills ladder. About two-thirds of our apprenticeships are level two – which is the equivalent of five GCSEs, and the majority of the rest are level three, the equivalent of A-Levels.
"There is a small number of apprentices at level four, but if we look at the needs of the economy, we need a lot more people with higher level skills.
"We need to be changing the skills level in our economy in the next decade."
The consultation includes the possibility of providing apprenticeships at level seven or eight – the equivalent of doctorate level.
He said he is a strong believer in apprenticeships.
"It's a very efficient form of education and training because it provides a very close match between employer and skills, because an apprentice is learning their technical skills in a work situation.
"In the past they have been associated with traditional industries, but our view now is that they won't grow as much as some other areas.
"We are now considering, can we apply it to other areas, like ICT, creative industries, advanced manufacturing, financial services, business services? That is entirely possible.
"We'll be putting employers in the driving seat in terms of supplying apprenticeship frameworks, which isn't entirely the case at the moment."
Reforms had to address cases of a mismatch between what employers required and what potential workers were actually capable of, he said.
But Dr Farry said there was no desire to provoke a fall in the numbers of people going to university.
People emerging from university with the scientific knowledge or "very good critical thinking skills which come with an academic route" were needed in the economy, he said.
But he added that he wished to promote "parity of esteem" between advanced apprenticeships at level four and beyond and going to university.
"At the time people are choosing to make their application to university through Ucas, they would also be presented with a portal to apply for higher-level apprenticeships." He said the next year-and-a-half would involve more pilots, along the lines of the pilot for ICT apprenticeships, which began in September 2012. "Between now and September 2016, there will be a gradual change," he said.
"It's also where good careers advice is fundamentally important. We are also hoping to do a review of careers advice with the Department of Education within the next few weeks."
His own route to work and employment was "university through and through". But he does look enviously to the example of some of our European cousins, which embrace vocational routes to work more than university, and hopes to emulate them.
"Switzerland is at the pinnacle situation as 70% of people now go on a vocational pathway and 30% go to university, and Germany and Austria are likewise. They have very efficient labour markets to match skills with demand. and low levels of unemployment."