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CAO deadline: 'It's easy to forget about other options outside of this one, points-driven route to education'

Apprenticeships and traineeships must no longer be thought of as an alternative to traditional education, rather they must be viewed as viable and vibrant options within Ireland’s education system, writes Elisha Collier O’Brien.

Elisha Collier O’Brien

IT’S THE CAO deadline and students across the country are faced with big decisions about their future. It is easy to forget about options outside of this one, points-driven route to education.

The problems of skills gaps, high third level dropout rates and high youth unemployment figures currently facing Ireland, indicate that there is something missing in our education and skills system. While Ireland has a highly educated workforce and undoubtedly our talent is a major factor in attracting foreign investment to the country, there remains a disconnect between the employment opportunities available in the economy and the skills and expectations of Ireland’s graduates.

Last week’s announcement by Ministers Bruton and Halligan of additional funding of €20 million for new apprenticeship and traineeship places may be just what Ireland’s education system needs to tackle these issues.

Apprenticeships teach relevant skills

Apprenticeships and traineeships ensure that students are exposed to the most relevant and up-to-date skills directly from industry, and finish their course with on the job experience, greatly contributing to their employability. At the same time, businesses benefit from having an engaged candidate working directly within their team and with support from an educational institution.

Traditional academically focused education programmes are often slow to change in response to external factors and this rigidity can be a barrier to the modernisation and updating of courses, to the detriment of both graduates and employers.

Engagement with business, which by necessity must respond and adapt quickly to changing conditions and technical requirements, means that students graduate with modern and relevant skills set for the workplace.

Overlooking these opportunities

Ireland’s apprenticeship system has been somewhat neglected over past decades and when compared to our European neighbours it lags far behind in the scope of offerings. There are currently less than 30 apprenticeships on offer, primarily in trades such as construction or mechanics.

Apprenticeships are commonly thought of as only relating to a small number of traditional and usually male-dominated crafts, and until now this perception has been correct in the case of Ireland. As such it should come as no surprise that female participation is so extraordinarily low: it was recently reported that just 33 out of 10,000 apprenticeship places were filled by women in 2016.

Apprenticeships and traineeships must no longer be thought of as an alternative to traditional education, rather they must be viewed as viable and vibrant options within Ireland’s education system.

Changing perceptions

With the increased funding for additional places set in motion and confirmation that we are to see more sectors engaged in offering apprenticeships and traineeships, the battle now will be changing perceptions on what these new modes of learning have to offer in the minds of both young people and their parents.

There is a risk that the old impressions will linger and our misplaced infatuation with university education will need to be curbed if we are to reach the Department of Education and Skills’ goal of 50,000 apprenticeship and traineeship places by 2020.

Apprenticeships will become available in a wide variety of sectors, from finance to hospitality and IT over the coming months and years, which should make them more attractive not only to both sexes, but also to people of diverse interests, ages and backgrounds.

Women mustn’t be left behind

As the number of places available and the scope of apprenticeships on offer increase, special attention needs to be paid to female participation: women must not be left behind when it comes to these new educational opportunities.

Apprenticeships are an excellent entry point into a variety of sectors and come with benefits not offered by standard university courses such as the chance for students to earn as they learn. These are exciting opportunities, offering practical learning, modern skills training and invaluable work experience which will result in increased employability for graduates.

It is vital that we raise awareness of these opportunities generally, but given the historically low participation rates a special effort must be made to highlight the options to women and encourage female participation.

We cannot allow for both women and employers to continue missing out on the benefits which female participation brings, and such a significant investment by the State and by employers cannot continue to involve only 33 out of 10,000 female participants.

Elisha Collier O’Brien is Policy and Research Executive with Chambers Ireland.

‘Stick with finance, computing, and languages’ – students filling out their CAO forms told to keep it traditional>

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Elisha Collier O’Brien

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