Sunday 15 December 2019

Is it time to keep up with the Germans?

Some experts argue everyone from bakers to bankers should start their careers as apprentices.

Aer Lingus apprentice maintenance engineer Ben McEvatt
Aer Lingus apprentice maintenance engineer Ben McEvatt
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Ireland needs to improve its apprenticeship schemes in order to meet the country's skills needs and boost career opportunities for young people.

That is the view of Ibec's education officer Tony Donohoe as the government hopes to encourage workers to "earn and learn".

In Germany two-thirds of young people become apprentices when they are starting out in their career, and the vast majority of these trainees stay the course.

In Europe's most powerful economy, there are 350 recognised trades where staff have to become apprentices.

In Ireland, by contrast, there are only 26 trades and these are still largely concentrated in construction, which is just recovering from its decimation in the crash of 2008.

Last year, just under 2000 young people started in one of the officially-sanctioned on-the-job training schemes. That is a drop from a boomtime peak of over 8,000.

The relatively low status of apprenticeships is partly down to cultural attitudes.

In some circles they are seen as a make-work scheme for those who are not qualified to go to university.

Tony Donhohoe of Ibec says: "Apprenticeships tend not to enjoy parity of esteem in a society that defines educational achievement in terms of CAO points."

While in Germany apprenticeships are a standard part of working life across the class divide, in occupations ranging from plumbing to banking, in Ireland degrees are regarded as the be-all and end-all.

The chief executive of Aer Lingus, Christoph Mueller has criticised the Irish belief that everything but a university education is inferior.

Since he took over as boss of the national flag carrier, he has revived apprenticeships for maintenance engineers at the airline.

In an interview he said: "We have to promote non-academic education as something equal to academic training, if not better."

He said institutes of technology are often seen as places for people who did not get into university, and we need to move away from that idea.

"We need to incentivise employers to offer apprenticeships and internships. Irish graduates are not necessarily fit for their jobs. There should be on-the-job training as part of academic education."

In some ways the reservations of Irish parents are understandable, because the range of apprenticeships available is so narrow.

FAS schemes trained workers in trades that were hit heavily during the recession, and the reputation of the training body suffered heavily as a result of a expenses scandal and a perception the training body was wasting public money.

Tony Donohoe says: "The current apprenticeship system, which is limited to 26 occupations, does not reflect the broader skills needs of the Irish economy. Female participation in apprenticeships is negligible."

Last year German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged other governments to use apprenticeships as a solution to European youth unemployment .

So should we try to keep up with the Schmidts and try to copy the German model?

According to Tony Donohoe, copying and pasting the German strategy is easier said than done.

"The apprenticeship model in Germany took centuries to develop. The Germany economy is very different to the Irish one, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from it."

A recent government review said the range of apprenticeships available should be expanded dramatically.

On-the-job training schemes should be available in areas such as computing, IT, retailing, hotels and restaurant, medical devices, childcare, financial services and accounting. According to the report, this will require a strong commitment from employers to identify their skills needs and to pay apprentices.

The review says that the expansion of apprenticeships should be accompanied by a campaign to boost their image among learners, parents and employers.

In devising new apprenticeship schemes, the training bodies will have to ensure that they are meaningful and not just used by bosses to hire cheap employees with government subsidies.

The Economist recently reported on the situation in England when it was discovered that one in 10 apprenticeships were created at one shop chain.

It emerged that the chain was using a government subsidy to put over 50,000 of its staff through six-month courses in operating tills and other basic tasks that required little expertise. Tony Donohoe of Ibec said apprenticeships should not just be done as an alternative to going to college.

"They should be available at all skill levels from school leaving to advanced degree level. In Denmark there are industrial PhDs.

Irish Independent

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