Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will know that “we” are in the middle of this year’s Leaving Certificate exam.
It is being sat by almost 60,000 students, but we all hear so much detail about these exams it can feel as if we’re in there alongside them.
This year, we are, blessedly, without the additional acute angst that was provided by Covid. For two years, this piled on top of the traditional acute angst already suffered by students and their parents.
It will seem like we have hardly drawn our breath on the difficulties presented by the maths or Irish papers, before we are all plunged into the CAO hysteria of how many points are required for law or medicine.
But there is a bright spot. When this year’s Leaving Certificate students were going through the CAO website looking at their options, it wasn’t just university courses they found, but also information on apprenticeships. A whole other option.
In Germany, apprenticeships are an integrated part of the economy, but that is certainly not the culture here. Irish mammies and daddies are recognised as not being big fans of their offspring going down this route.
An apprenticeship has traditionally been seen as something that is just grand for someone else’s son or daughter, usually son. But not your own little treasure who will be heading off to college whether they wish to do so or not.
The hope now is that by putting them on the CAO website, where they are given prominence along with the other third-level options, students and their parents might psychologically view them as an “acceptable” options.
Department of Education figures show that at just over 66%, we have one of the highest rates of progression from secondary level to higher education in the EU. This is a good thing. But we are also almost wilfully cutting off a further option for our students with the blinkered, college or nothing, thinking.
The chances are that it will take more than inclusion on the CAO, but it is a great step in the right direction towards ensuring that kids who are often forced towards one option by parents, or who would not even have considered this other option, will do so now.
Further education courses were also featured for the first time. Applications will continue to be made through the traditional channels but the CAO website displayed links for those students who were interested.
Encouragingly on apprenticeships, so far, there have been well over 30,000 click-throughs from the CAO website by those who want to discover more.
We have traditionally looked on this type of vocational training as the domain of young men involving craft apprenticeships such as carpentry, or plumbing or plastering or painting or decorating, or to broaden it out a bit, to electricians.
Funnily enough, all the trades under such demand that you will currently wait weeks, if not months, to get one to come to your house to fix a problem.
When they do arrive you need to be prepared to pay top dollar. There is the massive house building project currently under way nationally, where we already know there is a massive skills shortage.
Under the Government Action Plan for Apprenticeship, the range on offer now is far wider — there are 65 apprenticeship programmes and almost 20 more on the way, aimed at tackling skills shortages. Further and Higher Education Minister Simon Harris has made it clear it is a priority of his to make apprenticeships more attractive.
This week, he opened the new National Hairdressing Apprentice Hair Salon in Coláiste Dhúlaigh in Dublin, the first national recognised hairdressing qualification in Ireland.
His colleagues might smile wryly at the information that since January the minister has visited over 70 secondary schools around the country — a great way for an ambitious minister to get himself about — where he has been talking to students about their options, not least apprenticeships.
They might also raise their eyes at his prolific use of social media, or the time he has on his hands, but it is interesting to see that when he put up a question asking if schools would like him to visit he received well over 500 invitations.
In 2021, a record 8,607 new apprentices were registered in the system, an increase of nearly 40% compared to 2019.
There has been an effort to incentivise employers by offering an annual grant of €2,000 for taking on an apprentice, and €2,666 extra if that apprentice is female, in the traditionally male-dominated fields. The apprentices have an employment contract and are paid a salary for the duration of their apprenticeship.
There has been significant expansion from the traditional areas on offer like farm manager, bar manager, wind turbine maintenance, healthcare assistant, scaffolding, biopharma, accounting, supply chain, equipment systems engineer, auctioneering, commercial driving to serve the haulage sector.
An apprenticeship, you may not realise, can also provide the way towards a degree in science or a masters in engineering, with the opportunity to get a recognised qualification between level 5 and 10 and for those who do a level-8 apprenticeship you end up with a level 8 degree — just as if you went to college. But you’re earning money along the way.
But if the minister is to come anywhere near to succeeding with his ambition of transforming our attitude to apprenticeships, and the system that organises them, he will have to look at the rate of pay.
Sinn Féin has conducted a survey which the party says gathered the views of almost 350 apprentices about their experiences of pay and working conditions and backlogs in accessing training.
Party spokeswoman on further and higher education Rose Conway-Walsh said a majority of apprentices are being badly hit by the cost-of-living crisis. Despite working full-time, many apprentices are on very low pay, often below minimum wage.
“Almost half said they are worried they may have to give up their apprenticeship, simply because they cannot afford to keep going. This would be devastating for a range of industries, and would have a major impact on construction and retrofitting in particular,” said the Mayo TD.
Another ongoing issue which she highlighted is that many apprentices have had major delays in progressing their apprenticeship because of training restrictions during the pandemic.
“Only 1,798 apprentices became fully qualified tradespeople in 2021. That is close to 600 fewer than in 2020 and represents the lowest number of newly qualified tradespeople since 2017.”
So there are clearly areas which need to be addressed. But for the sake of young people who often end up being a square peg in a round college hole, and our wider economy, apprenticeships are an option worth exploring.