Belfast Telegraph

'Now is the time to give our young people the right skills'

Jim Gourley, Chief Executive of Plumbing & Mechanical Services Training, explains why it is more vital than ever to invest in skilled talent

It is understandable that employers faced with winning new business against huge competition - and sometimes simultaneously dealing with devastating cash-flow issues - can end up feeling helpless and locked in the moment.

But if Northern Ireland is to survive this recession and lay down the foundations for strong economic growth, now is the time for action, for new partnerships and for investment in the business leaders of the future.

To stake our claim in the global marketplace, Northern Ireland must bring fresh and meaningful talent to the skills table in readiness for the inevitable uplift in the economy in two to three years' time.

And that, by the way, is less than the length of time it takes to train a properly qualified plumber, or heating and ventilation engineer. So where will the industry be in 2014 if we fail to invest in apprentices now?

The caveat is that this preparation must be undertaken via the employment route, where the work experience is meaningful. Half-baked schemes to address the often competing, but very real, social agenda may keep people off the unemployment register, but will ultimately result in partially trained, badly motivated and disillusioned operatives.

The PMST Apprentice of the Year Awards brings together apprentices and employers from both sides of the community in the celebration of an achievement which crosses divides and increases capacity for acceptance and shared understanding.

Young people between the age of 16 and 24 can start an apprenticeship in Plumbing and Mechanical Services, providing they have the minimum qualifications of a GCSE grade C in English and Mathematics or Essential Skills level two.

They also need to have an employer who will support their apprenticeship on-site for the duration of the four-year apprenticeship. Industry knows that the only effective apprenticeship is one steeped in commitment from both employer and apprentice. Any arrangement which waters down this crucial relationship is flawed.

PMST not only addresses the management of this co-ordinated package of development, but enhances it through additional soft skills training such as customer care and communication, resulting in a more rounded individual who can represent his employer in the marketplace.

The current reality is, of course, that a lack of new construction work makes it more difficult for employers to take on new apprentices, because less work means less finance.

However, adversity also brings with it opportunity and some employers have been very successful in diversifying into new areas of potential market growth - for example, the renewable energy sector is expanding rapidly and is clearly here to stay.

Since fewer buildings are being constructed, there is also a greater need to maintain the current building stock and the great opportunity that affords in providing planned maintenance, reactive service and energy management.

PMST will be addressing these areas of development through its planned new training centres across Northern Ireland.

We believe that Government can best assist employers by continuing to provide funding through its flagship employer-led programme, Apprenticeships NI. This scheme ensures that apprentices are employed and benefit from tackling real-life challenges as part of a team.

Government needs to listen to the voice of industry and work with organisations such as ours to provide meaningful apprenticeships.

This is instead of flooding the market with part-trained young people with no opportunity to find work in the industry.

Northern Ireland has always been to the fore in standard of apprentice training - and this has been proved when it comes to national competitions, where we very often take major awards, including the UK Apprentice of the Year Award.

Tonight, Belfast City Hall will host a gathering of some of Northern Ireland's best employers and most talented young people.

All of these individuals are committed to developing real skills and contributing to the Northern Ireland economy at a most challenging time.

Now that is something worth celebrating.The reality is that a lack of construction work makes it harder for employers to take on apprentices

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