Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Helping young people to shine in the workplace

Apprenticeships are invaluable both to the Northern Ireland economy and the wider skills agenda, says Stephen Farry

I welcome the Belfast Telegraph's initiative which supports my department's ApprenticeshipsNI programme. The campaign will reinforce the extensive benefits an apprenticeship offers to both employers and young people.

It will showcase the talents, skills and commitment of apprentices in workplaces, informing and persuading more companies and individuals to reap the benefits of apprenticeships.

I am convinced of the need to get the apprenticeship message across to even more employers: apprenticeships are good for businesses - both large and small.

I recently attended the Apprentice of the Year Awards for 2012 and saw the contribution apprentices are making to the future of Northern Ireland's economy.

Skills form the backbone of any economy: if you have a diverse and dynamic skills set, you are going to be able to meet the shifting demands of an increasingly globalised economic world.

Apprenticeships are right at the heart of the kind of economy we want to build: one where young people have the chance to learn skills the economy needs; where we have a highly-skilled workforce and where we are providing the goods and services the world wants to buy.

I support lower corporation tax, which could deliver a step-change in the performance of the Northern Ireland economy.

This must be accompanied by a renewed focus on other drivers of growth, including skills and ensuring we have the right skills in place to support any opportunities from a potential reduction.

Apprenticeships play a vital role in ensuring that we have a better-skilled, modern and dynamic workforce to drive our economy forward. There are more than 11,000 apprentices in training across Northern Ireland.

The ApprenticeshipsNI programme offers a range of apprenticeship opportunities for existing and newly-recruited employees. There are more than 100 apprenticeships to chose from, which can take between two and four years to complete, depending on the level of study.

Apprenticeships work for both businesses and individuals - providing companies with a skilled workforce to help them grow and giving people experience, guidance and qualifications.

Employers in Northern Ireland understand the benefits apprenticeships can offer.

Last year, a City -amp; Guilds report examined the views of employers on apprenticeships in Northern Ireland and 71% of those questioned said they view apprenticeships as important to the success of their business.

When times are tough, competition for business contracts is even tougher. That's when a well-trained pair of hands could make a real difference and provide a business with the competitive advantage to exploit new growth opportunities.

Employers already engaged in providing apprenticeship opportunities know this. There are numerous successful employers who have embraced and benefited from the apprenticeships model, including Wrightbus, Bombardier and Schrader Electronics - to name but a few.

The key benefit for employers investing in apprenticeships is that the work-based training will meet the specific business needs.

Apprenticeships remain the gold standard for excellence in vocational training.

For apprentices themselves, apprenticeships give them the chance to earn while they learn and place them on the right path to career progression. In fact, many apprentices also progress to management positions in their organisations.

A successful apprenticeship system can also be seen as a method of providing a structured vocational route into further education post-16 for those who prefer not to continue their education through A-levels.

In order to further increase the attractiveness of work-based learning, my department has introduced a pilot Higher Apprenticeship programme at level 4 in the ICT and engineering sectors.

Higher level apprenticeships will provide an option for people to acquire degree-level skills, qualifications and an experience of higher education through work.

Northern Ireland performed better than any other UK region at the Olympics WorldSkills London 2011, scooping three medals - gold, silver and bronze.

It is important to acknowledge Northern Ireland's performance so that we can not only applaud it, but also learn from it and spread the message about the quality of our professional and technical training and the world class skills of our workforce.

Apprenticeships are key for rebalancing the economy and driving future prosperity in Northern Ireland. I call on the private sector, small and medium enterprises and NI Plc to realise the financial, social and cultural values of apprenticeships.

Now we need more people to follow their lead so that, together, we can develop a better-skilled workforce, which will enhance our local economy.

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