The development of new pathways, the introduction of provision for all-ages and the inclusion of a wide-range of public bodies are part of planned extensive changes to ensure apprenticeships meet the current and future needs of industry in Northern Ireland.
At present, further education, through provision and delivery of Higher Level Apprenticeships (HLAs), is the principle provider of ‘in demand’ level 4 and 5 qualifications and a dominant provider of vocational qualifications at level 3. While ApprentishipsNI provides level 2/level 3 apprenticeships, where participants work towards a level 2/level 3 apprenticeship framework.
Changing demands of the labour market will require a host of new skills to be delivered but given that the majority of the 2050 workforce has already entered the labour market, it is acknowledged that up-skilling and re-skilling will also be a critical factor if Northern Ireland is to reach its economic and environmental ambitions.
Northern Ireland’s new Skills Strategy recognises that the demands of a changing labour market will require continued investment in Northern Ireland’s further education sector, with a particular emphasis on the qualifications in priority sectors that will drive economic development, but additionally, that investment must “always be balanced against the role the sector plays in adult education and the provision of qualifications at level 2 and below”.
“The capacity of the skills system to deliver entry level qualifications and pathways to further and higher education is crucial, if we are to avoid the deepening of existing inequalities and support the realisation of our economic and societal ambition,” the Strategy states.
The Department for the Economy plans to work with FE colleges to develop a new Advanced Technical Award at level 3, aiming to address long-standing productivity challenges and contributing to addressing skill gaps identified in growth sectors. The award aims to increase the proportion of individuals achieving mid-level qualifications. Delivered in priority areas, the project will be delivered in two phases. Phase one commenced in September 2021 and sees the introduction of the Advanced Technical Awards in six priority areas. Phase two of the programme development will focus on the design of new bespoke qualifications and engagement with UCAS to recognise all aspects of the Advanced Technical Award.
Over 11,000 apprentices are currently in training, with under 10 per cent undertaking a Higher Level Apprenticeship. Over 150 apprenticeship frameworks are offered at level 2 and level 3, with over 20 offered at level 4 and above across a wide range of sectors. Employer-led sectoral partnerships operate across 15 different sectors, with the likes of food manufacturing and engineering, central to the development of apprenticeship frameworks from level 2 to level 8. On review of apprenticeship frameworks, the Department has developed further apprenticeship pathways in areas such as cyber security and digital forensics, while new level 2 and 3 apprenticeships will soon be available in Automated Entrance Systems.
Additionally, the Department says that, given the strategic importance of expanding the apprenticeship offering and the need for pathways to mid-level qualifications in all fields of study, the age cap for ApprenticeshipsNI is to be removed.
Finally, the Skills Strategy points to plans to introduce public sector apprenticeships (PSAs), offer the opportunity for existing and prospective public servants to undertake high quality learning and development as part of their work. Although a small number of PSAs already exist, the Department says it is committed to widening participation “by supporting development across a wide range of public bodies and bringing them under the support of the ApprenticeshipsNI and Higher Level Apprenticeship programmes”.
Alongside exploration of widening existing professional pathways within the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the Skills Strategy states: “Recognising the growing demand for highly skilled professionals in our health system, we will invest in the development of a new Nursing Higher Level Apprenticeship Framework, to support the diversity of entry points into the profession with clearly defined career progression routes.”