Belfast Telegraph

Why I am fully behind the Belfast Telegraph job plan

More value must be placed on the apprenticeship system as a viable and worthy career foundation, says Bill McGinnis

I had an opportunity recently to spend some time in Switzerland, talking to government, employers and educationists. What struck me is the prominence of vocational education and training and how it contributes to their economy.

The focus on vocational education and training begins in schools, with one hour a week in each of the last three years being devoted to career guidance sessions, ranging from visits to local companies, discussions about opportunities through the apprenticeship programme and pupils' strengths and aspirations.

When compulsory education ends at 16, most pupils have a clear vision of the path they wish to take next. Significantly, some 90% of the population goes on to obtain an upper secondary-level certificate, 70% through apprenticeships and 20% a more academic-based route.

In Switzerland, apprenticeships are the norm, even in the IT industry; while employers here tend to demand a university qualification.

This focus produces some staggering statistics. In 2011, the Swiss system delivered 90,000 apprentices for 93,500 opportunities.

Demand exceeded supply: simply, there were too many employers wanting apprentices. This shows the level of commitment from industry and recognition of the value of an apprentice. This belief is further shown by the funding for apprentices. Industry funds and oversees the system and this ensures companies, including IT and others, gain the skills they need.

The political parties have a commitment, explicit in their manifestos, to keep the system in place, regardless of who holds power, and this gives it great stability.

In spite of offering frameworks covering 230 occupations, the Swiss authorities keep the system as simple and as streamlined as possible, especially in terms of qualifications.

Our system can often be viewed by employers as complex and confusing, leading to a lack of understanding of what the various qualifications are and how these impact on their business.

Switzerland consistently has youth unemployment rates among the lowest in Europe (7.7%), compared to the OECD average (16.2%).

So what does this mean to Northern Ireland? Well, it's worth pointing out that the Swiss system has been developed over 100 years and works in relative isolation to political factors. However, what struck me most was the attitude towards and perception of apprentices.

For too long, attitudes among parents, within schools and in our society have regarded apprenticeships as a safety net for young people who either do not wish to go to university, or are otherwise not considered suited to an academic course. What is needed here is a shift away from the prevailing view that university is the paramount route to career success.

University, undoubtedly, has its role - and it is an important one. But apprenticeships should be seen as equally valid. We need to recognise the important role apprentices can play in building businesses and the wider economy.

For any training system to be successful, there needs to be a tri-partite approach between learner, employer and government. All must be involved, committed and working together for success.

We must communicate to employers and they must recognise the value that an apprentice can bring and the return on investment that can be made if an apprentice is utilised correctly.

Parents and schools must recognise the very real benefits to be gained and encourage young people to consider spprenticeship as a viable route for their future career.

Government must make sure the programme is in place that ensures that the apprentice gets real, worthwhile employment with training and the company sees real benefit.

I support the Belfast Telegraph in raising the profile of apprentices and I hope the campaign contributes to the recognition that apprentices are good for business.

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