Seanad debates

Monday, 8 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Apprenticeship Programmes

10:30 am

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for coming here this morning to reply to this matter. Last year, I addressed him in this House on the matter of apprenticeship schemes. In particular, I proposed that he provide funding to revive and reinvigorate local authority apprenticeship schemes. I was very encouraged at the time by the Minister's favourable response to this proposal. What progress has been made in implementing policy in this regard? With unemployment soaring again on account of the economic impact of lockdown, measures to breathe life back into the ailing economy are needed now more than ever. People need more than just politicians giving trite pep talks on social media. They need learning and employment opportunities. They need supports and purpose in the present moment and they need real cause for hope for their futures.

Investing in real people by offering funded apprenticeship schemes is a tangible means of achieving these objectives. Lest it has escaped anyone's attention, the most recent Central Statistics Office, CSO, data demonstrate the gravity of the economic decline. The CSO website states:

The COVID-19 crisis has continued to have a significant impact on the labour market in Ireland in January 2021. While the standard measure of Monthly Unemployment was 5.8% in January 2021, the COVID-19 Adjusted Measure of Unemployment could indicate a rate as high as 25.0% if all claimants of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) were classified as unemployed.


Breaking the results down by broad age group, the traditional Monthly Unemployment Rate for those aged 15 to 24 years was 15.7% in January 2021, while it was 4.6% for those aged 25 to 74 years.


If all claimants of the PUP were classified as unemployed, the upper bound, or COVID-19 Adjusted Measure of Unemployment indicates a rate of 25.9% for males and 24.1% for females in January 2021. Breaking the results down by broad age group, the new COVID-19 Adjusted Measure of Unemployment is 56.4% for those aged 15 to 24 years and 21.4% for those aged 25 to 74 years.

These are truly sobering statistics for every age group, but they are most notable and worrying for young people. Youth unemployment can have a dreadful long-term effect on the lives of young people and, indeed, on society. As this economic morass has been caused by a Government policy, the Government should introduce urgent policy measures to reverse it.

A Local Government Management Agency paper from 2013 highlights the need for funding support for local governments to provide apprenticeships. It states:

The current economic constraints being experienced by local authorities mean that the requirement that apprentices are paid by the local authority employing the individual is a barrier to many local authorities providing standard apprenticeship placements. Local authorities, as evidenced by their support of the Redundant Apprenticeship Placement Scheme, are supportive in principle of providing work training placement but at present the majority of the local authorities would not be able to pay apprentices whilst they complete their workplace training.

This report also advocated that a broader range of occupations be catered for. It also states:

Consideration should be given to expanding the range of occupations to cover areas such as - Laboratory and Science Technicians

- Inspection services

- Water Services and wastewater service operations


Broadening the range of skills available can be of real benefit and would modernise and add expertise to local government while also filling the gaps within the private sector labour market. One thing that stands out is the list of water services. Given the need to build 33,000 houses annually to cater for demand, we will surely need more skilled plumbers to expand and maintain our already inadequate water and waste water service infrastructure. I suggest working in association with Irish Water to deliver those much-needed services.

I ask the Minister to provide the House with a comprehensive update on the status of all apprenticeship schemes. How have they been affected over the course of the past year? What progress has been made in broadening the range of skills covered? What action has the Minister taken to revive the apprenticeship schemes delivered by local authorities? Has funding been allocated in the budget to this end?

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to address the Seanad today, and also for her comments on this matter a number of months ago. They did have an impact and I acknowledge her leadership in recognising this untapped potential.There has been too much of the public sector talking the talk and expecting the private sector to walk the walk. We need to step up here. Apprenticeships are a hugely valuable route to both skills development and supporting economic recovery. There is much low-hanging fruit in our own country in this regard and there has been perhaps an elitist view on higher education for far too long. There is a great deal more we can do on apprenticeships. We have committed in the programme for Government to reach 10,000 newly registered apprentices each year by 2025. That is a massive increase which is up from approximately 6,000 apprentices a year at the moment. This will only happen if the private and public sector step up.

As of December 2020 there were 313 apprentices employed across 48 Departments, agencies and State bodies, 55 of whom were employed by local authorities in areas such as accounting technicians, plumbing, carpentry, cyber security and software development. While I thank each of those local authorities and Government Departments, the scale of that ambition is absolutely nowhere near adequate. Apprenticeships are employer-led offerings, are based on a contract of employment between the apprentice and the respective employer, and each local authority has its own human resources department which looks after local recruitment, supported by the Local Government Management Agency. As part of our consultation in developing our new action plan on apprentices, which I am due to bring the Cabinet next month, we have received much feedback from public sector organisations on what they believe will be required in order to be able to take on more apprentices. They have outlined things like relevant support and procedures that would need to be in place and the availability of mentor staff is also seen as critical particularly in the challenging Covid-19 environment.

When we publish our action plan on apprentices which is, as I say, due to go to Cabinet next month, the Senator can take it from me that there are going to be very clear commitments as to what every Government Department, State agency and local authority is required to do, to include what the baseline is for number of apprentices that each local authority and Government Department could take on and what extra packages of supports we need to put in place to make that happen. Without getting ahead of myself I can give the Senator an insight that this will be a core component, along with some of the gender equality issues on apprentices.

The Senator asked more broadly about apprenticeships. There are now 59 existing apprenticeship programmes ranging in duration from two years to four years. They range in qualifications from level 5 to level 10 and there are also a further 19 programmes being developed at the moment. Where there is an identified need for a new apprenticeship programme, it is then developed by an employer-led consortium of employers together with education and training providers under a structured framework.

The action plan for apprenticeships for the coming five-year period is under development. We have already seen some considerable success with the financial incentive for the first time ever now being offered to employers to take on an apprentice. In addition to the programme for Government commitment the role of the public sector in apprenticeship recruitment was raised by a number of stakeholders during our consultation process. The Senator can expect also to see formal commitments in this area in the Government’s new action plan.

I should mention that this following item ties together the gender equality issue, which is a big issue in apprentices, and the public sector issue in that I met Zoe Fitzgerald recently on Zoom. She is the 1,000th female apprentice registered in Ireland. We had 26 female apprentices in 2015, which is a shocking figure. We now have 1,000, which is still very low but is 1,000 up from 26 in 2015. The reason I mention that is that Zoe has taken up an apprenticeship in one of the local authorities in Cork. This is an example of how this State can do some real good here in policy development in giving young people a chance. We are very ambitious in this area and I am very eager to work with and benefit from Senator Keogan’s insight and to keep in touch with her on this matter.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister. I fully welcome the work that the Minister has done to date in making my suggestion a real, live project throughout this country within local authorities. It is an untapped source. We have 31 local authorities in the country. Even if each of them was to create 100 apprenticeships over the next five years, that would be 3,100 apprenticeships created by his Department alone. Most people say that Governments do not create jobs but will create the environment. We can create the environment but this is something that the Government can actually do.

I also bring to the attention of the Minister, which he may not know about, that people under the age of 18 on apprenticeships could not access any payment whatsoever when it came to the closing down of their industry last March.They could not get the PUP because they were under 18. Those in Youthreach get a payment of €40 a week. They do not want to get the same as the PUP. Rather, they want something to acknowledge their value and worth to society. They are doing a full day's work on an apprenticeship and get no money. I do not know how long it will continue but there should be some money for those people who are unemployed as a result of the Covid pandemic.

The gender issue is significant. In the summer months, I run an apprenticeship programme in my town. Last year, for the time year ever, I found it extremely difficult to get employers to take on people. I found it very hard to get electricians, plumbers and carpenters to take on people because they did not have confidence in the market. The Minister can say things are going to get better, but it would help for him to lead the way on this. I find it very difficult to get girls to come in.

I thank the Minister. I will keep an eye on what he is doing and hopefully I will not see him back in here during my time in here.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I hope the Senator and I have many chances to engage. She made a point about how we attract young people, be they male, female or even not-so-young individuals. One of the projects I am working relates to reform of the Central Applications Office. In this country, we narrow the discussion about the full range of options far too early. In my home town, the conversation is often whether someone is going to UCD or Trinity College rather than about what the person actually wants to do and how we can help him or her to get there, with an apprenticeship being seen as a viable route in this regard.

We need many more people in the craft space, but not just in that space. When I was a Minister of State, we worked at introducing an apprenticeship relating to financial services, which is going very well now. There has always been considerable untapped potential and this is even more important now in the context of the Covid pandemic. My sense is that the financial incentive we introduced for employers has helped stabilise the situation during the pandemic.

I will follow up with SOLAS on apprenticeships for people under the age of 18. Education has always been a priority area under the living with Covid plan. Without getting ahead of ourselves again, I would hope that as the community transmission goes down, we can see those apprenticeships resume quickly.

Sitting suspended at 11.47 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.