Saturday 1 October 2016

German-style apprenticeship system is what our youth need

Published 18/08/2013 | 05:00

Last week, we rightly rejoiced when Rob Heffernan won a gold medal in Moscow. But the media took no notice when Joseph Kelly won a gold medal at Leipzig last July. Thereby hangs a tale of class prejudice and crass stupidity.

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Kelly won his gold for aircraft maintenance at the WorldSkills Fair in Leipzig. He was trained at the FAS Training Centre in Shannon as an apprentice. He is now employed by TransAero, an aircraft maintenance company based in Shannon.

To win his gold medal, Kelly had to be better than apprentices from all over the world. That included Germany, the home of apprenticeship skills. We also won a gold for plumbing. But this is the third time in five years that we won it for aircraft work.

The BBC carried British gold medal success at Leipzig on the main evening news bulletins. But RTE did not remark on Ireland's success. In fairness, RTE, and indeed the rest of the media, were only following in the footsteps of Ruairi Quinn and all education ministers before him.

Most of our ministers come from the college class. Practical skills pass below their radar. The FAS Shannon training centre, where the young lad was trained, did not even get a letter of congratulations from any government department.

Lest you think I am harping on class, ask yourself a question. If Joseph Kelly was from one of the posh schools and won a world Young Scientist award, wouldn't he have been all over the media? And if he was a German or British apprentice, he would have been all over their media too.

That's because David Cameron has been busy copying Germany's brilliant system of dual education. You can't get most jobs in Germany without serving a practical apprenticeship with an actual employer. One stark figure shows up the snobbery of the Irish political and educational establishment.

Ireland has 29 recognised trades. Germany has 342 recognised trades. Twelve times the number we have. And we are not just talking about plumbers and carpenters.

German apprentices range from bankers to opticians, from plumbers to hotel bed makers. The German dual system demands that apprentices spend up to 70 per cent of their time working in offices, on shopfloors, in foundries. The remaining 30 per cent is spent in classrooms.

That ratio of practical to theoretical is reversed in Ireland. Many third-level colleges are bloated with academics who teach courses with no practical skills attached, which are broken by long holidays.

This is not to say the Germans neglect theoretical training. They do it in blocks of 12-18 weeks. But the apprentices still have to spend the bulk of their time in on the job training with an employer who is responsible for their practical skills training.

The results of Germany's dual education should give a reality check to the college class in the Republic of Ireland. Two-thirds of Germans under 22 begin an apprenticeship and 80 per cent of them finish it. That means that over 50 per cent of their young people have completed an apprenticeship. No wonder Angela Merkel and David Cameron have extolled apprenticeship as the best way to tackle Europe's youth unemployment crisis.

We in Ireland desperately need to adopt the German apprenticeship system for three reasons. First we have 450,000 people on the dole. Yet the Government has had to launch a visa programme to fill 700 IT places. Why? Because our academic colleges are not turning out graduates with the basic skill levels that companies need for IT.

Second, we are too dependent on multinationals. We desperately need to develop our own domestic manufacturing base. We need to make our own widgets and wodgets. And we need to do it on the German model, where two-thirds of industry is made up of medium family-owned firms, employing 30-50 workers.

Finally, you cannot have a manufacturing base without skilled people. We are not producing them for reasons ranging from historical snobbery to political ambivilence. And FAS, with its scores of dedicated FAS instructors has been put under a cloud created by a few greedy bosses.

The truth is there isn't that much wrong with the present FAS apprenticeship system. FAS has a network of 19 superbly equipped and staffed training centres, with highly motivated staff who, unlike third-level academics, can deliver skills training eight hours a day, five days a week. But they have been mothballed because of the recession.

Meantime, thousands of young people on jobseeker's allowance are being allowed to waste away the best years of their lives. With a little imagination the jobseeker's allowance could easily be converted into a training allowance. Far better to give these young people skills training instead of coercing them to do college courses where they learn to become critics rather than creators.

But if we want FAS or its successors to play a full part in the economic fightback, we have to tackle three practical problems. First we need to adopt the German system of apprenticeships, but without the need for a sponsoring employer. In a recession that is a recipe for leaving thousands of young people twiddling their thumbs.

Second, we need to break the costly link whereby the apprenticeship pay rate is linked to the fully qualified man's rate. Instead, a training allowance should be paid for a period of at least two years of the training. This would save money as well as allow many more apprenticeships.

Finally, we need to break the influence of academics on the skills training system. FAS's poor image has been used to facilitate the takeover of skills training by the college class. Anyone who doubts its growing influence has only to look at the council Ruairi Quinn set up last May to review the apprenticeship system.

As far as I can tell, the committee has no tradesmen on it, nobody from FAS on it, nobody from a factory floor. Can we reasonably expect this council to favour a German- or British-style apprenticeship system that breaks the dependence on academe?

This is now the core issue. Do we entrust skills training to a FAS-style system or to academic colleges? FAS instructors all come straight from industry. They work a five-day week, just like industry in the real world.

Academics, in contrast, lack practical skills and their teaching hours are too short to reflect the reality of actual employment. Not to mention the long breaks at Christmas and Easter and the three months' summer holidays.

Common sense tells us that the college class is not going to create full employment. Far from FAS being the problem, it is the solution. Time to put the snobbery aside, take skills training away from academics and give this generation the German-style system we need to go for the gold.

Sunday Independent

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