Belfast Telegraph

Minister vows to create 10,000 new apprenticeships by 2020

BY CLAIRE MCNEILLY

Northern Ireland's Employment and Learning Minister has promised there will be 10,000 new, quality apprenticeships for students by 2020.

Stephen Farry revealed the radical proposal during an interview at Stormont with the Belfast Telegraph and two of our young editors.

It forms part of a wholesale reform of apprenticeships to meet the demands of the local labour market and to better prepare young people for the workplace.

And it follows the results of a major LucidTalk poll which found that 25% of our young are unhappy with the training and qualifications gained via their education.

"I would like to think we would be more than doubling our current apprenticeship numbers by the end of this decade to 10,000," Mr Farry said.

"The concept of apprenticeships has to be refashioned for the 21st century. They are highly relevant to the economy in Northern Ireland – and to its success."

Mr Farry said he wanted apprenticeships to have parity of esteem with degrees for pupils making decisions over higher education.

He also said he believed they were the way forward for the economy in terms of fixing the mismatch of qualifications and skills in the labour market. By expanding the jobs covered by a new scheme, he also sees apprenticeships as a way to lower youth unemployment – which currently stands at 23% in Northern Ireland – and high levels of student debt.

"We've just completed a major review of apprenticeships and we're talking about a number of reforms," said the minister.

"We want to widen the range of occupations that apprenticeships are considered part of and we're also going to move them up the skills ladder. Rather than only offering an A-Level equivalent, we want to offer a degree or PhD equivalent, so that young people could choose to do a higher level apprenticeship as an alternative to going to university."

He added: "It'll probably be September 2016 before the new system of apprenticeships is fully operational, but between June and 2016 you'll begin to see some of the changes being rolled out."

Mr Farry conceded that "relatively few" employers in Northern Ireland currently offered apprenticeship opportunities and he said his department was examining ways of addressing this issue, including financial incentives.

In order to encourage young people to consider them, the minister stressed that he wanted to establish a level playing field for higher education.

"We want to create a parity of esteem between traditional universities and apprenticeships, rather than one being seen as junior to the other," he said.

"We're thinking of putting in place a portal that's equivalent to UCAS (the UK university admission system) so whenever young people in schools are considering where they may go to university they also have, in parallel, the opportunity to see which businesses are offering apprenticeship places."

With the economist John Simpson putting the average graduate debt here at between £20,000 and £30,000, the young editors asked the minister about university tuition fees.

"Student debt can be a barrier to higher education and that's why we've taken the decision to freeze fees around £3,500 for local students at local universities," Mr Farry said.

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