Belfast Telegraph

Apprentices makeover is needed says lobby group

Image change should ensure they are alternative to academic career route

By Margaret Canning

Apprenticeships have an image problem which must be reversed to make them a genuine alternative to academic routes, a business lobby group has said. The Federation of Small Businesses was responding to the a strategy on apprenticeships, which include learning on the job as far as doctorate level and a central application system for those wishing to get an apprenticeships.

And the union which represents students – whose membership also includes apprentices who spend part of their week in regional colleges – called on pay rises for apprentices.

There is no mention of pay rise for apprentices in the strategy, which follows a major consultation with organisations and employers earlier this year.

In a statement to the Assembly, Employment Minister Stephen Farry said his department's strategy could "transform the skills landscape".

"Skills are the key driver of positive economic change, and are also a powerful tool to promote individual opportunity and to achieve greater social inclusion."

He said delivering the strategy, would bring major change to the current apprenticeships system. The changes are expected to be made by 2016.

The new system would range from entry level apprenticeships to level 8, the equivalent of a doctorate. There would be apprenticeships in a "wide range of professional and technical occupations" and they would also be extended into the public sector.

The strategy calls for a closer match between supply and demand in the labour market – so an annual barometer to monitor the skills needed on the workplace will be kept.

Dr Farry also called on employers to offer more apprenticeships, and for more young people to consider apprenticeship.

"I want apprenticeships to have the same parity of esteem as other educational pathways," he said.

FSB NI policy chair Wilfred Mitchell welcomed the strategy.

"There is little doubt that apprenticeships have suffered from an image problem and we would like to see a quality system in place which promotes apprenticeships as a genuine alternative to the traditional academic route.

"Apprenticeships can also help address the persistently high levels of youth unemployment in Northern Ireland as well as match the skills of our workforce with the needs of the economy.''

He welcomed plans for employers to become more involved in the system.

Rebecca Hall, the president of all-Ireland students' union NUS-USI, welcomed the strategy and called it "ambitious" but added that she was "extremely concerned" at pay for apprentices.

"The current minimum wage for people who are 21 and over is £6.31 and for people aged 18-20 the minimum wage is £5.03.

"The disparity between these and the rate which applies to many apprentices is appalling."

Anne McKiver, a director at KiverCo recycling plant near Coalisland, Co Tyrone, said the new emphasis on apprenticeships as a means of getting someone qualified to doctorate level was a "good idea".

"There's always been a stigma attached towards apprenticeships, but I think if that can be removed and if apprenticeships can be promoted at home and at school, it has to be a good thing."

She said that the perception of apprenticeships was changing in the Co Tyrone area, thanks to South West College's gold apprenticeship scheme for engineers. "That thinking needs to be rolled out into other industry," she said.

Kiverco apprentice Josh Mens from Dungannon – a past pupil of the town's Royal School – was last year's Apprentice of the Year.

Belfast Telegraph