Thursday, 10 November 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting this matter and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, for making himself available to take it. As education spokesperson for Fianna Fáil, I am very proud of my party's history in the education sphere over the years, including this current period in office. It has certainly been a transformative period despite the many challenges of Covid. We pushed for the establishment of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. We reformed the leaving certificate. We are providing free schoolbooks to all primary school pupils. We have a ten year literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy. We have widened and improved Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, which is something I have long advocated. We have expanded the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools programme, DEIS. One in four students is now availing of the programme. We have also reduced the pupil-teacher ratio to its lowest ever.
As a party, we have also championed the launch of a five year action plan for apprenticeships, and this action plan aims to expand the types of programme available and increase the number of apprenticeships to 10,000 by 2025. I note that it is great to see a lot more women taking up apprenticeships. Approximately five years ago, only 2% of those taking up apprenticeships were women, but that has greatly improved since. This plan will work to ensure equity of access, to ensure under-represented groups are able to avail of apprenticeships, by creating simplified routes to entry and improved flexibility within the system. The fact there is additional support for those within the apprenticeship system, in particular for employers to encourage them to support and to take on apprenticeships through financial assistance and other mechanisms, is really important. This is a real step change in terms of public policy around apprenticeships and I particularly commend the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, on his work to date on this issue within his higher education brief. This strategy brings all apprenticeships together under one roof in a new National Apprenticeship Office.
I fully support the expanded offerings. We need to ensure that we broaden what we mean by education, and that we recognise the needs of the job market and of students. We have skill gaps in our workforce, of that there is no doubt, and apprenticeships are a key element in filling many of those. We have invested heavily in apprenticeships, and that is absolutely the right decision. However, I have had a number of cases recently where the academic elements of certain courses have yet to be confirmed or to take place. I am going to give one particular example, so let us call this young man, John. He took up an apprenticeship on 21 April last year.He completed all the necessary documentation, as did his employers, within one month. He did not receive any confirmation about where the academic side, his block release in terms of college, would take place. I have followed this up a number of times. I went to the Minister's office and to SOLAS. SOLAS has blamed Covid-related delays for backlogs in admitting this student and others to the college element of their course. At this stage, it is accepted that Covid is no longer a valid excuse. SOLAS came back and told me at the end of September that the student would be in placement in quarter 4 of this year. It is now 10 November 2022 and the student has still not heard anything. This is not good enough. There seems to be lingering delays in the wider apprenticeship sector in terms of these elements and they need to be alleviated. As this young man said, if he went straight into the labouring area of construction, he would be earning three times more. It is hard to keep young people motivated when they are not getting the responses and the opportunities to deal with that essential element of the block release. This would allow them to study and further their own career within the apprenticeship area. I would like to know what is happening to alleviate this issue.
I would like to thank Senator O'Loughlin for her question on this very important issue for the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. Apprenticeship is a demand-driven educational and training programme, which aims to develop the skills of an apprentice in order to meet the needs of industry and the labour market. Apprenticeship has undergone transformation over the past six years. The importance of apprenticeships in society, both now and into the future, has never been more apparent than it is today.
The Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025 was launched in April 2021 and sets out new ways of structuring, funding and promoting apprenticeships to make apprenticeship accessible to employers and learners. The actions set out in the plan seek to deliver on a target of 10,000 apprenticeship registrations across a wide range of programmes each year by 2025, thereby fulfilling a key commitment in our programme for Government. Some 25 of the 66 apprenticeship programmes are craft. These experienced a marked increase in interest over the past four years, accounting for more than 80% of the apprentice population. Given the practical nature of off-the-job training for craft apprentices, the Covid-related shutdown of on-site learning, or block release, had a significant impact on their ability to access off-the-job training. Consortia-led apprenticeships were not delayed to the same extent but may have had disruption - for instance, in hospitality programmes.
Craft apprenticeship programmes are demand-led. There are no restrictions on the number of apprentices that can be registered in any single year. Last year saw a record 8,607 registrations overall. This is an increase of nearly 40% compared to 2019, the last normal year, of which 6,955 were craft registrations. Strong registrations are continuing this year. SOLAS, the HEA and education and training providers work together to deliver craft, off-the job training places, and have worked closely to change training delivery. The programmes with the longest waiting lists - electrical, plumbing and carpentry - have been reformed. These changes are now running through the system with increased numbers of apprentices being called to off-the-job training. In addition, all classes which had been running at half capacity under social distancing measures are now back at their full intake.
To ensure that the remainder of the Covid-19 backlog is cleared and the system has the capacity to meet the training needs of rapidly increasing numbers of apprentices, expansion is being funded. For example, capital funding of €20 million was provided in 2020 to extend and upgrade facilities. Expansion is continuing in 2022, with further major investment in workshops and staff planned for this year and beyond. Two large training hubs dedicated to electrical training are being developed for the next three years. Electrical, plumbing, and carpentry programmes are expanding across further and higher education. Electrical workshops are being developed under Kilkenny and Carlow ETB and a further training facility is being developed in Donegal. There is a call for additional phase 2 capacity in craft programmes, including carpentry, plumbing and refrigeration. There is also the expansion of electrical apprenticeships in ATU Donegal and MTU Kerry.
An additional €30 million in once-off funding was secured for apprenticeship in 2023 to help expansion of the system and support the Government's Housing for All and climate goals. Top level data for the end of October has just become available. It shows that 4,937 apprentices are waiting more than six months for their off-the-job training. There has been significant progress made, despite continued strong registrations. For example, nearly 6,000 phase 2 apprentices have completed or commenced their training. Nearly 1,300 more will be trained by year end. More than 7,000 phase 4 and 6 apprentices have completed or are progressing their training and nearly 3,000 more commenced training in September.
Officials in the Department are in continuous engagement with SOLAS, the HEA and other partners. As strong registrations on craft programmes continue, SOLAS is working, and will continue to work, to provide further places to address high numbers of apprentices needing off-the-job places.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I certainly welcome the capital funding and the expansion that has been put in place. It concerns me when I hear that the top level data for the end of October shows that there are 4,937 apprentices waiting more than six months for their off-the-job training. This is a huge issue. Planning is essential for everybody. Young people who have taken on apprenticeships need to be able to plan accommodation for whichever college they will attend for their off-the-job training. In some instances, they may need to be able to save to buy a car because they will not be able to get accommodation. That is a real concern.
It is very heartening to see the number of apprenticeships being taken up and we are starting to see the parity of esteem that is needed between academia and apprenticeships. I would like to send a very strong message to both Ministers that this needs to be resolved as soon as possible.
This recent data is very concerning. I spoke with an official in the Department this morning and she assured me that those people who are waiting six months and more are going to be prioritised in being moved on to the next phase of their off-site training or block release. It is important to point out that further funding of €17 million has been provided to SOLAS and the HEA to address Covid-related backlogs. Of this, €6 million is being invested in additional instructors with more than 100 additional posts approved. However, I will certainly deliver that message to the two relevant Ministers.