A multi-million pound scheme set up to support apprentices during the Covid pandemic has been slammed for making "tiny progress" after it emerged less than 200 applications have been submitted - with just 32 payments processed.
Back in September, Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced she had secured an additional £17.2m from the Executive to bolster Northern Ireland's efforts tackling the effects of the pandemic, which was supplemented with additional funds from the department.
The Department for the Economy's Apprenticeship Recovery Package is made up of three initiatives, which benefitted from an extensive advertising campaign across TV, print, radio and social media.
A total of £12.5m was allocated to the Apprenticeship Recruitment Incentive, which was designed to encourage and support employers to create apprenticeships for both new apprentices and those who had been made redundant. It offers support of £3,000 to employers for each new role created between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021.
The scheme opened for applications on October 16. However, as of December 16, only 197 applications were made to the scheme. Of these applications, only 32 payments have been processed. These figures were released by the DfE in response to an Assembly question tabled by SDLP MLA Cara Hunter.
In a new statement issued on Monday to the Belfast Telegraph, a DfE spokesperson said a "significant number" of applications were deemed ineligible as they were submitted too early and the department is working with employers to rectify this. A total of £14.3m was also allocated to fund a Return, Retain and Result scheme, which offers up to £3,700 of support, per apprentice, to employers who return an apprentice from furlough and retain them until they have completed their apprenticeship. It opened for applications on December 1.
As of December 16, only 32 payments had been processed under the scheme across 44 applications. On Monday the DfE said that there have now been 80 successful applications and a further 150 applications are being processed.
Finally, the Challenge Fund was set up to "support innovative approaches and new collaborations" to increase apprenticeship opportunities in Northern Ireland. Successful applicants could receive one-off awards of up to £50,000. It opened for applications on September 28 and closed on October 23.
Some 13 projects out of 46 applications were successful, although no payments have been made as final activities and costs are still being agreed.
In response to the figures, Ms Hunter said: "The Covid pandemic has presented young people in education and training with a set of unprecedented challenges - stop/start schooling, bleak job prospects and employers unsure of their order books means that it was absolutely vital that funding for apprenticeships reaches the employers who need it.
"Months after her multi-million pound announcement, a tiny amount of progress has been made to support apprenticeships across the north."
Roger Pollen, head of the Federation of Small Businesses, said that, while the uptake is disappointing, it is not surprising, as many businesses do not consider it feasible or socially responsible to take on apprentices at this time given the wider public health situation.
A DfE spokesperson said the Economy Minister Diane Dodds is committed to supporting apprentices and a digital hardship fund has also been set up to also training providers to purchase equipment to support more than 1,000 disadvantaged young people undertaking vocational training in the non-statutory sector.