'Earn-as-you-learn' offers a clear route to career success
Paddy Power loved his job in hospitality. Barman, duty manager, restaurant supervisor… he did it all and excelled at it. But when he got married and had his first child, the long hours and weekend work began to take their toll.
"Becoming a dad was a game-changer," says the 30-year-old from Wexford.
"I was working 12-hour days and craving time with my family, but what could I do? I'd been in the bar trade since school.
"Now I had to figure out how, in my late 20s and with no qualifications, I could get a job that would be more structured and allow me to spend time with my family without having to start from the ground up."
Paddy spent a year looking for a way to change career and when he saw an advert in the Wexford People for an Insurance Practitioner apprenticeship at Wright Insurance in Wexford town, he knew he'd found what he was looking for.
"It said no experience necessary, but they wanted someone with people skills, and though I'd have to take a drop in salary, it would be an 'earn-as-you-learn' programme, leading to a BA (Hons) degree in Insurance Practice after three years. I thought, 'This is for me!'
"Hitting 30, I wasn't old, but it was now or never, and I was determined to get that job," he says.
Paddy fought off stiff competition from 80 applicants, and took up the position in 2016, the first year the apprenticeship programme was introduced in this country.
"I haven't looked back. I'm already halfway through and I love it. I work four days a week on the job, and spend one day doing online interactive lectures with Sligo Institute of Technology in subjects such as sales and customer service, technical communications, e-business and service development.
"I study three evenings a week, and more often coming up to exam time. I have three exams every three months, with both Sligo IT and the Insurance Institute. One of the benefits is seeing first hand at work how the things I study are put into practice."
Although his schedule is no walk in the park - he's now a father of two, Archie Dean (4) and Ezra (1) - Paddy says doing this apprenticeship was one of the best decisions he ever made.
"I'm getting on-the-job experience combined with college tuition, and with the 9-to-5 structure, I can actually plan family things four to five weeks in advance, something I couldn't consider in my last job. I had to take a 50pc drop in salary to do this, but it's well worth it.
"I get to spend quality time with my wife Amy Louise and our boys. I mightn't have said this when I was 20, but family life and happiness are more important than money. Besides, in the long term, when I get my degree, I'll earn at least the same as I did working all the hours in hospitality, if not more."
Paddy is one of over 12,000 apprentices with 4,900 employers currently participating in the government-backed apprenticeship scheme.
It is part of the Department of Education's Action Plan for Education, which has an ambitious goal to make Ireland's education and training system the best in Europe by 2026.
Hailed as a sign of an improved economy, the Apprenticeship and Traineeship Plan offers career options for school leavers and mature students who would prefer to have paid, on-the-job training while studying for a qualification rather than going to college full time; and it has the added bonus of not having to fork out for college fees.
It was launched in 2016, and the programme now offers apprenticeships not only in long-established industries like plumbing, carpentry and construction, but also in white-collar sectors like accountancy and healthcare, and in new industries such as information and communication technology (ICT), cybersecurity and animation.
Courses typically take two to four years to complete, and salaries and qualifications vary, depending on the job, duration, the company and other factors.
Some apprenticeships in the financial sector, for instance, come with starting salaries of up to €30,000, while qualified tradesmen can go right up to master's level (Level 9) in their chosen field.
Education and Skills Minister Richard Bruton says that apprenticeships collapsed during the recession, with registrations falling by 80pc during the period.
Before the economic crash in 2008, apprenticeship numbers hit more than 28,000 a year, but fell to below 6,000 by 2013.
"I am keen not only to rebuild traditional pathways but to significantly expand apprenticeships into new industries," says Mr Bruton.
"I believe this is key to fulfilling our ambition to be the best in Europe by 2026."
To help him achieve this goal, the minister has committed €122m in extra funding this year to expand the programme into new areas. As well as 26 new apprenticeship programmes already announced, this will allow a further 10 to be introduced, and 6,000 more registrations.
Programmes include Insurance Practice, Industrial Electrical Engineering, Polymer Processing Technology, Manufacturing Technology, Manufacturing Engineer, Accounting Technician, Commis Chef, International Financial Services (Associate & Specialist) and ICT (Network Engineer and Software Developer).
Also new this year is the allocation of 500 Post- Leaving Cert (PLC) places nationally to new 'pre-apprenticeship' courses.
These are designed to give students going on to do apprenticeships a better feel for what's entailed, and give employers a chance to assess the suitability of the candidate and have confidence in the apprentices joining their company.
Previously aimed at the unemployed, traineeships are now offered to participants of all ages and backgrounds looking for a way into the retail, beauty, hospitality, sports and leisure, and many other industries. These tend to be of shorter duration than apprenticeships, typically lasting from six to 20 months.
They're funded and co-ordinated by SOLAS, the further education and training authority, and delivered by its main partners, the Education and Training Boards (ETBs).
This year's budget allocated an additional €15m for the traineeship programme, which aims to have 3,900 new enrolments in 2018.
For more information on Project Ireland 2040 visit the official website