Applications for further education colleges in Northern Ireland are down by up to 40%.
Demand among employers for new apprentices is expected to fall by around half, Belfast Metropolitan College chief executive Louise Warde Hunter warned.
Since March, thousands of trainees have been furloughed or made redundant during the coronavirus shutdown, she said.
We are trying to find creative solutions while, importantly, maintaining our standardsLouise Warde Hunter
Ms Warde Hunter said: “We are now trying to figure out as college leaders how teachers teach, how our classrooms are configured to manage social distancing.
“We are trying to find creative solutions while, importantly, maintaining our standards.
“That is critical to staff and learners alike.”
She told Stormont’s Economy Committee of the unprecedented challenges facing colleges as they prepare to reopen in the autumn.
“Applications are down on last year by up to 40%.”
Much of further education colleges’ work follows partnerships struck with employers wanting to train staff in specialist areas.
Ms Warde Hunter added: “We expect that less will sign up to courses with us.”
Demand for apprentices is estimated to fall by around 50%.
Since March, 2,338 apprentices have been furloughed and 191 made redundant, she said.
The college leader said online learning is essential to help revive the weakened economy.
She called for more investment to support the post-Covid-19 digital infrastructure, and help train teachers for a blend of classroom and online learning as well as social distancing measures.
We must be very clear that we do not compound inequality through digital povertyLouise Warde Hunter
“The challenges have assumed greater significance against the backdrop of Covid-19.
“We must be very clear that we do not compound inequality through digital poverty.”
Ms Warde Hunter said organisations awarding qualifications should be held to account.
“We believe that there are real opportunities for the sector,” she said.
“With the right recognition, investment and support we will be able to fulfil our social and economic commitments and the needs of Northern Ireland plc.”