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OPINION: Conundrum of too few apprentices

March 10th, 2019 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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JUST as the government has eventually got around to committing to a 10-year capital expenditure programme to build the infrastructure for future development, the problem of a serious shortage of apprentices to regenerate the skill sets in the construction industry to do this is undermining its best-laid plans.

Back in 2006 when the Celtic Tiger building boom was at its peak, there were roughly 25,000 apprentices learning their respective trades in the construction industry and this was regenerated annually with approximately 8,300 new apprentices signing on. However, there were only about 3,000 new yearly registrations in 2017, according to research carried out by the Construction Industry Federation and 86% of construction companies were experiencing issues as a result of an inadequate supply of qualified tradespeople. 

It was understandable that there would be a fall-off in apprentices after the virtual collapse of the construction industry here in the wake of the economic downturn post-2007. A lot of the apprentices who had served their time in the boom years had no option but to emigrate to find work and other countries benefitted from the training they got here, and probably still are doing so.

Ironically, as the big cranes have become a familiar sight on our cities’ skylines again, the construction industry here is taking in a growing number of workers from abroad because of the lack of a younger indigenous workforce with the necessary skills. The age profile of Irish workers left in the industry is mostly people from their 40s upwards and the need for fresh blood and energy is obvious, presenting a conundrum for the government to solve.

The skilled labour shortage has been put down by some as snobbery about young people going into what were traditionally classed as ‘blue collar’ jobs. Most parents and their teachers tend to steer second-level students towards amassing enough CAO points for college places and there is a lot of peer pressure on them also in that regard.

Many students are not academically-minded and not interested in going to college either. Some end up going there only to confirm that it’s not for them, which is a waste of their time and their parents’ money.

The underlying snobbery attached to the whole thing continues as some parents and teachers still insist on trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Anyone who thinks taking up an apprenticeship instead of going on an academic college course is inferior would really want to adjust their attitude and wake up to the realities of life.

In the agricultural sector, there is a far better take-up of young people doing relevant courses, with great practical experience on farms being made available to them, combined with opportunities to travel abroad to see how it is done in other countries and to further their education with higher-level college courses afterwards if they so desire. There is third-level theoretical element to new apprenticeships in other areas as well, with the practical side of things still the most important.

Before he was moved from the Education and Skills portfolio – the latter part of which seems to operate below the radar too much – Minister Richard Bruton announced a capital investment of €8m to benefit apprenticeship programmes for 13 trades in institutes of technology across the country, with the aim of increasing the number of new apprentices registered to 9,000 by 2020 and expanding further into new areas.

Making the case for more young people to consider apprenticeships, Liam Hetherington, a director of construction company GPD, said that more needs to be done to promote it as a viable and attractive option for our young people, ‘not only for the good of the construction sector, but also for individual students coming through the school system who may be influenced by a somewhat negative prevailing attitude towards apprenticeships as a career path after school.’

He said that ‘we need to communicate to these students, and to others in the years below them that apprenticeship route is not simply for those who “don’t get the points” for university. It is a direct route to a promising career in the trades industry – be it construction or otherwise.’

Clearly, the government needs to keep increasing its annual expenditure on apprenticeship programmes, but the mindset in schools and amongst parents needs to be more open to the options available.

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