For centuries and before the rise of educational institutions, it was common for everyone to learn “on the job”. Apprenticeships were highly sought after and were seen as the best means of ensuring that a trade or profession could adapt, innovate and grow. Sadly, something got lost along the way and apprenticeships found themselves out of favour and out of funds; replaced instead by the notion that the only good education was a university education.
But things are beginning to change – driven by growing skills gaps, persistently high levels of youth unemployment and the gradual realisation that an academic education is not necessarily the only route to a good job and a meaningful career. Northern Ireland is no different and Employment and Learning Minister, Dr Stephen Farry, has been particularly quick to pick up the baton. He and his department have demonstrated a bold commitment to apprenticeship reform and the Department for Employment and Learning’s ‘Securing our Success’ strategy has the potential to transform the skills landscape in Northern Ireland.
As the largest further and higher education college, Belfast Met plays a crucial role in ensuring that vocational education and training delivers for individuals, employers and the wider economy. We have, for example, taken the lead in pioneering the new academy-style approach to training. This approach gives something of a modern twist to the traditional apprenticeship model and is proving extremely effective in providing the employer with the skills, competencies and technical training that is right for them.
Academies on cloud computing, data analytics and software testing have completed numerous cycles; each involving small groups of enthusiastic and highly motivated students. Employers work with the college in shaping and designing the skills solution on offer and it’s this collaboration which is key to its success. As you would expect, employment rates for students on completion of the training are impressively high.
Belfast Met is now extending academies to other sectors, including working with Harland and Wolff in running a specialist welding academy and developing a bespoke, 20-week training programme for the financial services company FinTrU.
The introduction of Higher Level Apprenticeships (HLAs) is another exciting development and something that Belfast Met has long campaigned for. Our new HLA in Finance and Accounting began this term, with others in Aeronautical Engineering, Science and IT to follow later in the year. Each of these initiatives helps demonstrate the potential of work-based, academically challenging vocational training as a credible alternative to the standard A-level followed by university career path.
However, in spite of all this progress we still have a long way to go in convincing people that vocational education and training is just as valid an option as university. It is ultimately a matter of choice and, like everything else in life, making the right choice depends on having access to the right information. Narrowing school-leavers’ options doesn’t do anybody any favours and it’s critical that we provide young people with full and impartial careers advice, while also encouraging parents to think outside the narrow academic box.
Apprenticeships are a tried and tested way of turning students into work-ready employees. Far from being the latest political buzzword, they now form a central plank in the skills agendas of governments across Europe. This is exactly how it should be. The challenge now is to make sure we all deliver.
Marie-Thérèse McGivern is Principal and Chief Executive of Belfast Metropolitan College. For information on courses call (028) 9026 5265 and for business development services (028) 9026 5058. Or visit www.belfastmet.ac.uk