Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry must be congratulated on his decision to ask for a major policy review on how Northern Ireland should organise a coherent programme of apprenticeship training.
This review is an important recognition that for employers, employees and government, the current arrangements lack the degree of coherence and comprehensiveness that could ensure that job prospects for younger workers are enhanced. They should also ensure that prospective employers are more likely to locate in Northern Ireland.
The agenda and timetable for the review are ambitious. A report is expected by the autumn of this year. The review for apprenticeships, itemising 15 major issues, combines a series of questions on policy, practice, organisation and certification that will not easily be compressed into an eight- month exercise.
Because the timetable is demanding, that should not become an excuse for delay. The minister should expect that this will have awarded priority status.
In the economic strategy adopted by the Executive, there is an understandable emphasis on ensuring that Northern Ireland has the capacity to develop modern knowledge-based sectors with an increasing proportion of employees holding third-level academic or vocational qualifications. The universities have been challenged to improve their contribution.
To emphasise only the need for the universities to respond to the changing economy would fail to appreciate the fundamental importance of the basic skills that stem from apprenticeship training and other vocational third-level provision by the further education colleges. Not only can skilled apprentices form a critical support base for modern business, skilled apprentices can, and often do, develop into people with the management and leadership skills that are needed.
The apprenticeship review initiated by Minister Farry is overdue. The current structure and scale of apprenticeship arrangements is too variable and is sometimes too informal. There are examples of excellent arrangements in a (too small) number of employers alongside other examples of unstructured informal engagements that do not adequately serve the interests of young workers and sometimes unknowingly restrict the ability of businesses to develop.
The central dilemma for the development of a radically improved programme of apprenticeship provision is that new proposals must bring together the competing demands of employers for whom apprentice training is an internal organisational problem alongside the external influence of a desirable accreditation process with assured recognition, a type of occupational passport.
The range of occupations for which there should be apprenticeship provision will need to be agreed and the generic competencies then specified. Perhaps significantly for an area such as Northern Ireland, an accreditation system must be devised that allows and encourages young employees of smaller businesses to get some of the advantages.
Is the business community prepared to support the formation of local training consortia for defined occupations where several businesses could have co-operative training arrangements?
Is the Minister for Employment and Learning prepared to allocate some funding to the extra marginal costs of training through consortia arrangements? Is the minister supportive of a greater defined participation in apprenticeship training by each of the further education colleges?
This review must be broad-ranging, from traditional skills to more recent groups of skills, some linked to the evolution of information technology and computer processes.
One of the fundamental questions for the people reviewing how the apprenticeship provision can be expanded and enhanced is how to challenge the current assumption that, in the main, the initiative lies with employers to create schemes to match their individual needs. That is only a starting point.
The review process must acknowledge that there is a need for a pro-active wider perspective.
The current advisory institutional arrangements must be tested to remove inactive or dysfunctional organisations. The review team should be led from outside the civil service by people independent of the existing arrangements.
Stephen Farry has initiated a sensible review. Now he must make it genuinely independent without any inherited bias.