When our politicians returned to Stormont a few weeks ago public relief was matched by a sobering realisation that there was much to address. There is a sense now, not of looking back but looking forward.
What kind of place do we want Northern Ireland to be and how can we take it there? When those kinds of questions are asked we start talking about employment, investment, innovation, education and giving our young people a sense of worth and purpose.
NI Apprenticeship Week, which continues until Friday, is about getting people talking, raising awareness and bringing employers, parents, teachers and present and future apprentices together.
Workplus was formed when a group of employers in civil engineering looked at the talent pipeline and considered how to bring more young people into the industry by making it more attractive. After all, the NI Skills Barometer identifies that civil engineering and IT are the two most under-supplied sectors over the next 10 years.
A dedicated apprenticeship programme seemed an ideal solution - a win for the apprentices who earn as they learn, get a job from the start and don't pay a penny to college or university, and for the employers who get an enthusiastic employee ready for work and willing to learn.
This year Workplus is offering 22 types of apprenticeships in a whole host of areas including IT, sales, quantity surveying, architectural technology and construction management. To make it simple for parents, schools and applicants, Workplus has developed a platform like UCAS for apprenticeships with applications for 120 places open until February 28.
The culture of apprenticeships is changing, and fast. A generation ago, an apprenticeship meant one thing - learning a trade. Now, our apprentices commonly tell us their friends who are studying full time are jealous of their paid jobs, professional development and qualifications gained without incurring debt.
Apprenticeships are for grammar school pupils as much as secondary school pupils, for those with straight As at A-level as well as those with lower GCSE grades, because of the breadth on offer.
As well as being supported by mentors, apprentices are plugging into a community which is passionate about seeing them thrive and flourish.
Apprenticeships are the solution to many of Northern Ireland's challenges. They are a viable way of genuinely addressing the brain-drain here and give young people a way to emerge with a job and a debt-free degree. Our experience to date has shown that apprentices make loyal employees with 95% completing their apprenticeship, moving to a higher level or becoming a permanent employee.
But there is still lots to do to educate society about the value of apprenticeships and their potential for individuals and the economy. Many of our apprentices say they feel that information about apprenticeships was inadequate in their schools, and parents we speak to are often surprised to find out about opportunities that exist as an alternative to full-time study.
So, as Workplus grows, creating many more apprenticeships with a wider range of employers, we are working hard to make sure teachers and parents all over Northern Ireland have the information they need, as we know they have the biggest influence over the decisions young people make about their education and early careers.
Workplus is holding a free event, 'Meet the Parents', at Ormeau Baths tomorrow, February 5, at 6pm, where you can hear from parents and employers who have helped young people take the step into apprenticeships. Tickets are available at Eventbrite.
For further information visit workplus.app
Richard Kirk is Director of Workplus