Apprentices will soon be climbing up the ladder - to get their degrees
Trainees walking into jobs
Electricians are about to break through the age-old barrier between the trades and the professions, following approval for the first programme allowing apprentices to gain a degree.
It is part of a wider reform of the apprenticeship system, one key aim of which is to provide opportunities for tradesmen to climb all the way to the top of qualifications ladder.
The other big change coming is the extension of the apprenticeship model to 'white collar' areas such as insurance, financial services and accounting.
The new focus on apprenticeships represents a shift away from exclusive reliance on the CAO as a route to a third-level qualification and subsequent career.
A traditional apprenticeship takes four years, combining the job training and college-based learning, and generally provides a Level 6 qualification,
A Level 6 is the equivalent of a higher certificate, which is associated with the further education sector, and compares with the Level 8 (honours degree) and Level 7 (ordinary degree) in higher education.
The first degree course approved for apprentices is a two-year Bachelor of Engineering (industrial electrical engineering) at Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT). It is an add-on, designed for those who are already qualified electricians and to meet the needs of the electrical, engineering, automation and manufacturing employers in the region.
Students will spend 70pc of the time on the job, with two 15-week college-based blocks at Limerick IT over the two years.
In time to come, it is expected that there will be opportunities for qualified tradesmen to go all the way to master's level (Level 9) in their chosen field.
The Limerick IT programme has been validated by the State qualifications agency, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), and is among the first two of the new-style apprenticeships to get through the quality-assurance process.
The insurance industry has also been approved for an apprenticeship programme in association with IT Sligo, while other new apprenticeships, in the fields of accounting, financial services and technology, are in the pipeline.
Traineeships are turning into full-time jobs at a fast-growing Irish company, Combilift, Co Monaghan, thanks to a partnership with the local education and training board (ETB), which saw 25 engineering trainees taken on last year.
Combilift is a global leader in forklift manufacturing, currently employing more than 300 employees, with a €40m expansion paving the way for 200 new jobs.
Cavan Monaghan ETB's chief executive, Martin O'Brien, has been a pioneer in the development of the 'earn as you learn' approach to skills development, to meet the needs of local employers.
The one-year engineering technology traineeship at Combilift is a nationally recognised qualification and the company is also working with the ETB on the development of an engineering apprenticeship. A number of this year's trainees have been offered employment with Combilift, and interviews are underway for the second intake.
Mr O'Brien said they were keen to develop more apprenticeships and traineeships with employers, and at the moment they are working on six such programmes.
A traineeship is shorter in duration than an apprenticeship, but it follows the same 'earn as you learn' model, with opportunities to progress further.
The recovery in building has seen the launch of a one-stop shop for apprentices in the construction industry, at apprentices.ie.