Wednesday, 8 November 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
County Roscommon has no provision for an apprenticeship sector. In the space of three years, the Minister's new Department, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, has led on significant achievements. We can see landmark changes, with a new funding agency for research and innovation and the Minister's focus on apprenticeships. At a recent meeting of the education committee, an official referred to 26,000 people doing apprenticeships here in Ireland. We need to see access to apprenticeship programmes for people in towns and villages across Ireland. School leavers or career changers could take up to any of 70 courses that are currently on offer, including in auctioneering, biomedicine and farm management, as well as in traditional crafts and trades. There is such demand. Anyone you speak to will say he or she cannot find tradespeople, including carpenters and electricians. We have really long waiting times in Roscommon for retrofitting and the warmer homes scheme.
Students here can do courses at National Framework of Qualifications levels 5 or 6 and proceed to degree or postgraduate levels, bringing employment and jobs to local areas. Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, GRETB, has submitted a proposal to purchase a two-and-a-half-acre site in the heart of Roscommon town. It has submitted this to SOLAS, the national agency managing further education and training. It is a fantastic site in the middle of the town, close to the main street and with bus and train access. There is potential for four to five workshops. This is an incredible opportunity to deliver world-class apprenticeship training centres in County Roscommon. It takes in a large catchment area, including surrounding counties. The centre could link with businesses and enterprises in the local area, increasing the potential of Roscommon as a location for enterprise and creating local employment. It could link with the universities, including the Technological University of the Shannon, Athlone. There is a gap in apprenticeships in County Roscommon. We need to see investment in this region. I look forward to working with the Minister to progress this project.
I want to continue on where Senator Dolan has left off in saying this is really important for County Roscommon. Senator Dolan has adequately outlined the situation regarding the site – a brilliant site in the heart of Roscommon town. We want this in our county; we want it to be achieved. We were asked by GRETB to come together on this and bring it forward. In fairness to the Minister, he has led the way on this with the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. The Government is very strong on apprenticeships, putting in place what many of us have called for down through the years. It is now happening, and I admire and thank the Minister for that. I heard him make the true statement recently that college and university may not be for everybody. I meet an increasing number of students who say they are not going to university. I automatically ask people what college or university they are in but they say they are not in one and are doing an apprenticeship. There are people in the county doing apprenticeships but it would be fantastic if we could get the proposed venture into the heart of Roscommon town.
I have a message from the people of Roscommon town and the county. They will totally embrace and support this proposal. They will work for it and help in any way they can, as Senator Dolan will know. Senator Dolan said we have an adequate site. We have a Minister who is enthusiastic, and the Minister of State is also enthusiastic. We can make this happen. We are very happy to come here on behalf of GRETB, make our case and speak up for our own area. I assure the Minister that there will be many students to take up the offer if the education centre is put in Roscommon town. It would be very good for the local economy but, more important, it would be good for students and our workforce.
I am delighted to be here to take this important matter raised by Senators Dolan and Murphy. I thank them for tabling it and for working together on what is a really important issue.
The Government's ambition for apprenticeships and further education and training is well known and recognised. Only today we have seen figures that show an 8% increase in the number of apprentices in Ireland this year by comparison with last year. We are about a year ahead of our target in getting 10,000 new apprentices registered each year by 2025. We need to do this. We published a national skills bulletin today that shows where there are acute shortages. In one way, this is a success of full employment, but when there is full employment it is so important to start directing people into training and education to develop skills where needed, and supporting them in doing so. We can talk until the cows come home in this Chamber or the other about building houses but we are not going to build them if we do not meet the need for skills. Therefore, we need people to acquire the skills and take up the apprenticeships, including in respect of green skills and the climate agenda. Having more apprentices is no longer just a nice-to-do thing from a policy point of view; it is crucial and fundamental in meeting the skills needs of our country and providing pathways and different ways of learning, because we do not all learn in the same way. Tertiary education needs to be flexible and agile in this regard.Success in building a strong and effective national apprenticeship system and ensuring our further education and training sector realises its full potential is essential if we are to deliver on key national strategies. I believe the far-reaching decision to establish my Department three years ago with a strong mandate to focus, in particular, on apprenticeships, further education and training and integrated tertiary policy was a key milestone in recognising their crucial role. Apprenticeships and further education and training are two signature examples of that approach being adopted and delivered now in practice through our action plan on apprenticeships, through setting public sector targets for apprentices, and providing financial assistance to help businesses, particularly small- and medium-sized businesses, to take on an apprentice. One strong conclusion that draws from the three years I have had the privilege of being Minister is that the ground has now shifted significantly in terms of the very positive perception and positioning of apprenticeships and further education and training among students, learners, their families, employers and in our wider communities. That we are having this conversation in the Seanad today, and the fact those in Roscommon are asking why they do not have an apprenticeship centre in the town and, which is very heartening, that they are saying they would like one too because they have these skills needs as well and do not want to be left out or left behind, reinforces my conviction that we are on the right path and doing the right things.
As Members know, the Galway-Roscommon Education and Training Board training centre in Galway has been training apprentices since it opened as long ago as 1969. It has eight workshops and, to meet demand, the centre has a continuous year-round intake for electrical apprentices. Galway-Roscommon Education and Training Board will add a further nine electrical workshops over the next six to nine months as it fits out that adjacent building. The first four of these will have apprentices in place at the start of 2024. Remaining workshops will come on stream in the following four months. In regard to a Galway-Roscommon Education and Training Board training centre for County Roscommon, I can inform the Senators that the ETB has submitted a business case to SOLAS in respect of the purchase of a property in County Roscommon for the purpose of providing new apprenticeship capacity. Added to this, there is also the added benefit that it can consolidate existing further education and training provision from other parts of County Roscommon. SOLAS is now appraising the submission against a number of requirements, including our national apprenticeship requirements, climate action-focused planning and the public spending code. SOLAS has now met with Galway-Roscommon Education and Training Board to discuss the proposal in further detail. When this process has been fully completed, it will be submitted to my Department with a recommendation from SOLAS. My Department will then review it.
I will clearly say that I believe this proposal has real merit. I am excited about this proposal. We need more construction workers. More construction workers mean more houses. We need more apprentices. We also need to make apprenticeships easier to take up. That means they have to be local and accessible. It needs to play its full role in terms of regional and rural development. In my view, this proposal ticks all those boxes. We do not need any area of the country to be without apprenticeship provision. I have no intention of leaving County Roscommon behind. I want to work with the Senators to fill this gap. I look forward to visiting County Roscommon to discuss this further.
I thank the Minister. This is really positive progress. It is important to see this business case completed. Of course the Minister is welcome, along with officials from SOLAS, to come to Roscommon town to meet with Galway-Roscommon Education and Training Board and local representatives, who will fight this case. The Minister must not forget that County Roscommon is within the just transition area. We have seen huge impact around just transition. We have seen the loss of jobs in Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. We need to see this centre and jobs in County Roscommon. We need the Minister's support for this to move forward.
I am very enthused by the Minister's enthusiasm for this project but I mention, and I am sure Senator Dolan would as well, the efforts of the CEO of Galway-Roscommon Education and Training Board, David Leahy, and the members, including the elected members who are really enthusiastic about this. It is great to hear the Minister saying this is what is needed in County Roscommon. Obviously we have to wait for certain outcomes but the response he has given us is positive and I welcome that.
I thank Senators Dolan and Murphy. SOLAS has met the ETB and is working closely with it. SOLAS will then send a recommendation to my Department. I am saying clearly here on the floor Seanad Éireann that I am positively disposed towards this, as is my Department. I take the point Senator Dolan makes about the just transition area. That further adds to the compelling case of this project. I join Senator Murphy in acknowledging the leadership of David Leahy. I know he was in Leinster House recently. I am sorry I missed him but I want to praise the ETB for its leadership. We are talking about the Roscommon project today, and I am happy to do so, but as I said in my earlier answer, it is also expanding its provision in Galway. This is an ETB that is up for the challenge and is playing its part in helping Ireland to meet its national objectives. If we are serious about apprenticeships, and I am deadly serious, we need to make it as easy as possible for apprentices to take them up and as easy as possible for businesses to get involved. That means having local provision so that people do not have to travel long distances and employers can engage directly. I look forward to working with Senators Dolan and Murphy on this.
The next Commencement matter is in the name of Senator Rebecca Moynihan, who is not here, so as the same Minister of State is responding, unless Senator Moynihan makes a last-minute arrival, Senator Clifford-Lee is next. I welcome the Minister of State. Senator Clifford-Lee has four minutes.