John Walshe: This year's Leaving Cert pupils can reap the rewards with more opportunities than ever before
This year's batch of Leaving Cert students has more opportunity to pursue different further or higher education paths than were available in the past.
Despite the surfeit of bad news about, things are looking up for our young people, especially those with a Leaving Certificate or higher. In fact, the higher the qualification the better it is when it comes to getting a job.
It's hard to believe that just five years ago youth unemployment reached a record of 31.2pc in Ireland; it was down to 12pc in April. That's still above the lowest level recorded of 6.2pc but it represents a dramatic turnaround in a few short years.
All the evidence is that those with qualifications are reaping the rewards in terms of greater employment prospects. Education, of course, is not just about preparation for the workforce but for life, and OECD datas show that those with higher qualifications tend to live longer and enjoy better health than early school leavers.
Generally speaking we have more data about third-level education than we do about further education and some fascinating figures were revealed at a Higher Education Authority organised forum in Dublin last week.
It showed that in European terms Ireland has the highest percentage of young people in the 30 to 34 year age bracket who had gone to third-level education - 52.3pc in 2015, which was way up from 38.6pc in 2004. We are even ahead of countries such as Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.
The expansion in third-level numbers in Ireland has been so rapid that a huge gap has opened up between the educational attainments of young and older people, i.e. those between 50 and 64. The gap is wider in Ireland than in all other EU/EEA countries.
What's also growing is the earnings gap between those with a third-level education and those with upper secondary education. In Ireland's case those who went to college earned 47.3pc more in 2003, but this had risen to 54.8pc in 2013, according to research by Professor Francis Green and Dr Golo Henseke from the Centre for Global Higher Education, University College London Institute of Education.
This expansion in student numbers is coming at a price in Ireland and elsewhere because of the growing phenomenon of graduate 'underemployment' - where those with degrees are overqualified for their jobs. There are many reasons for it, from a mismatch between what's taught and what's needed by employers, sluggish jobs growth in employment in many countries - Ireland being the EU outlier - to labour market rigidities and poor management of graduate talent and skills.
The research quoted last week by Professor Claire Callender from London showed that graduate underemployment is particularly pronounced in Ireland - we can all point to examples of graduates who are working in what are clearly non-graduate jobs. Sometimes they are taking jobs that previously required a Leaving Certificate or lower qualification. Despite this, she predicted that demand for higher education in Ireland will continue to grow.
She noted that employment in both low-skilled and high-skilled occupations has grown in Ireland, especially high skilled. At the same time employment in intermediate skilled jobs - classic middle class jobs - has shrunk. She sees Ireland as evolving into an 'hour-glass' economy with the traditional middle class jobs going, but concluded that the graduate-earning 'premium' is considerable and is holding up in Ireland.
The same might be said about further education and training (FET), where we finally have a strategy in place which is opening up new apprenticeships and bringing greater coherence to post Leaving Certificate courses. There is now a national database of all Further Education and Training Programmes (www.fetchcourses.ie). This is part of a wider IT system being developed, which will provide much more comprehensive data around FET courses, learners and outcomes.
Apprenticeship registrations have recently made a welcome recovery, principally in the traditional craft apprenticeships. They are expected to increase significantly both in these existing craft areas and as the number of available apprenticeships expands. In the past year new ones have come on stream including insurance practice, industrial electrical engineering, manufacturing and polymer processing. A further 19 are in development, many at ordinary and honours degree level.
We may not end our obsession with traditional university degrees anytime soon but parents and students are increasingly seeing further education and training as a very rewarding option.
John Walshe is an education consultant