Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Apprenticeships hold the key to a prosperous future

Local companies should view investment in training as key to growing their businesses, says Gerry Campbell

Switzerland is not just famous for its clocks and chocolate - like Germany, the Swiss recognise the massive importance of vocational training and apprenticeships.

In Switzerland, two-thirds of all young people pursue a vocational training programme, with 30% completing apprenticeship programmes. In the UK, the figure for apprenticeships is closer to 10%.

While there is a growing determination across the UK, and particularly in Northern Ireland, where the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) is determined to increase the number and range of apprenticeships, there remains a key challenge.

Apprenticeships don't exist in isolation. Northern Ireland's six regional colleges are our main provider of technical, vocational and professional training.

But neither DEL nor the colleges can help drive up skill levels unless employers also play their part.

We have to ask: do employers in Northern Ireland recognise the value of vocational training? And do our schools?

Recent research suggests that our schools are failing to give their students accurate information.

An overwhelming majority (92%) of A-level students got the impression their school wanted them to go to university; a third of young learners polled (32%) state that vocational opportunities have never been presented as an option.

Northern Ireland's six regional colleges - Belfast Metropolitan, Northern Regional, North West Regional, South Eastern Regional, Southern Regional and South West - represent a significant sector in the economy, employing more than 4,100 highly-skilled and motivated lecturers, with a turnover of £250m-a-year. However, the value of the colleges to Northern Ireland goes far beyond that. There are also critical links between the colleges and schools and universities and between the colleges and local businesses and communities.

These are the fundamental progression routes that will help Northern Ireland deliver the skills that are vital to economic growth.

With more than £340m of capital investment over the past 15 years in a modern college estate and industry-standard facilities, we now have a world-class sector that is focused on helping people into employment, meeting the training needs of local companies and supporting economic growth.

The six colleges are at the heart of delivering training - training in all shapes and sizes, which is responsive to the demands of local, national and international employers.

And that is a key challenge to our employers: to engage with the colleges, so that they can understand exactly what is available and, in turn, support the colleges in understanding the needs of business.

It is vital that local companies invest in their strongest asset: their people. Apprenticeships remain a gold standard. But employers also need to see the benefits that apprentices can bring to organisations, through relevant skills, loyalty, high quality and greater productivity. A recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) showed that, for every £1 of public money invested in apprenticeships, the return to the economy is £18.

Apprenticeships work for both businesses and individuals, providing companies with a skilled workforce to help them grow.

Not only will these apprenticeships inject a much-needed financial boost into our struggling economy, they will also help tackle the current unemployment levels and ensure that businesses have the skills they need for future growth.

Your local college will work with you to identify what training, or other direct support, they can provide. If you haven't visited your local college recently, you don't know what you're missing out on.

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