The economic downturn over the past few years has hit Northern Ireland hard. Some of those most affected have been young people, particularly those who are trying to find high quality training. Hundreds of apprentices have been made redundant and there is a distinct possibility that this depressing trend will continue for the foreseeable future.
As the committee responsible for employment and learning, we have been monitoring this situation carefully. We have heard from a number of groups, including the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges, the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils and employers about the consequences of the downturn, specifically in terms of apprenticeships. One of the worrying emerging trends is the length of time it is taking Northern Ireland to climb out of recession – longer than any other region.
So what has been the situation for our young people? Many of our school leavers, keen to begin training and their working lives, have found that there are now very few paid apprenticeships; due in large part to the challenging economic climate.
In an attempt to address this, the Department for Employment and Learning last year introduced programme-led apprenticeships (PLAs). This scheme was, in effect, a crisis measure to provide training for young people who could not find a paid apprenticeship. The main difference between a PLA and the usual apprenticeship is that the PLA apprentice receives education maintenance allowance and was expected to spend only one day a week on a work placement, the other days generally being spent in college. A paid apprentice would generally work the other way round – one day in college and the rest of the week in the workplace.
A number of people, including me, were sceptical about how these PLAs would work and what their impact might be on paid apprenticeships, but thousands of young people were leaving school in June 2009 and had nothing lined up for September – a temporary measure had to be put in place.
At the time the committee highlighted concerns about how long PLAs could be sustained in this form and it is now our belief that it is time to find a more creative and flexible solution to the problem of making sure this group of young people have a reason to get up in the morning.
My committee has been monitoring this situation and working closely with employers and the skills groups. Increasingly we have come to the view that the PLAs are no longer a sufficient or long-term response to the dramatic fall in the number of paid apprenticeships available. We are worried that the young people in the PLA scheme may be seen by employers as ‘free’ apprentices and could displace paid apprentices if careful monitoring is not in place.
So what can we, as a committee, do? We have recently been involved in discussions around long-term options for apprenticeships, bringing together colleges, employers, sector skills councils and officials from the Department for Employment and Learning.
We have been very vigorous in our determination to resolve issues around how PLAs work and the effect that they have on other apprenticeships. We have encouraged the department to ensure that paid apprentices are not replaced by PLA apprentices. We are also working closely with the Department and stakeholders to develop a way forward for high quality training – training that will allow our young people a real future.
We are committed to giving our young people the opportunities that they, and we as a society, need for a more prosperous future. To this end, we have tabled a motion on programme-led apprenticeships to be debated on the floor of the Assembly in the next couple of weeks.
Helping our young people to acquire skills is the only way we can give them a real stake in the future.