The Employment and Learning Minister explains how the new apprenticeships strategy for Northern Ireland will broaden the range of placements available and raise the value of vocational education.
I recently announced the new Northern Ireland strategy on apprenticeships – entitled Securing our Success – which will radically transform our skills landscape and ensure our economy has the skills needed to grow and compete globally. Skills are the key driver of positive economic change, and are also a powerful tool to promote individual opportunity and to achieve greater social inclusion.
Apprenticeships provide an excellent means by which employers can obtain the specialist and wider skills they require as well as being assured that there is a strong skills base across the economy.
Apprenticeships benefit employers of all sizes, including small and micro-businesses, which form the vast majority of our economy. A key component of the new model will be that the apprenticeship system is designed to engage with these businesses and respond directly to their needs in terms of ease of access, relevant training, incentives and support.
The apprenticeship system will align to the needs of larger employers, including those who invest in Northern Ireland from overseas, reinforcing the gains that the region has already made in attracting foreign direct investment.
Across much of the developed world, there has been a renewed focus on apprenticeships as a mechanism to improve and encourage skills development, and innovation. For apprentices, the new system will provide them with the skills that are wanted by employers and relevant to the local economy, equipping them with enhanced prospects of sustained employment and increased earnings potential.
A new central service will assist the growth of apprenticeships, a strategic advisory forum and a series of sectoral partnerships will facilitate stakeholder engagement, and a revised Careers system will ensure our young people are fully aware of the range of apprenticeship opportunities and pathways.
The new model puts employers in the driving seat. The central service will support businesses participation, particularly SMEs and participants, and will include an online portal for the advertising and application of apprenticeship opportunities. The introduction of a skills barometer will support the better matching of apprenticeship supply and demand by providing a clear indication of current, emerging and long term skills shortages.
These mechanisms are all firsts for Northern Ireland and their implementation will ensure a high quality skills and learning pathway that will rival the world’s best.
It is my ambition that Northern Ireland’s system of apprenticeships will be of gold standard and form part of a new skills landscape. The demand for skills at Levels 3 to 8 (A-level to doctorate) is set to increase significantly. Apprenticeships will play a major role in meeting this demand and will commence at Level 3 upwards, offering progression into further and higher education and mobility across the wider economy.
The apprenticeship will be held in equally high esteem to higher education and will provide a direct route into a range of occupations and sectors previously only accessible through traditional higher education pathways. For those who already hold Level 3 qualifications, apprenticeships will be available in parallel to further and higher education at Levels 4-6 (sub-degree and degree levels). For certain occupations, there will be opportunities to undertake an apprenticeship at Levels 7 and 8 (masters and doctorate).
I want to ensure all young people are provided with the opportunity to compete for apprenticeship places. In tandem with the review of apprenticeships, I have been moving forward with a review of our broader youth training offer. The aim of the review is to ensure that youth training reflects the changing needs of the Northern Ireland economy and offers a progression pathway for young people onto either an apprenticeship at Level 3, a further education programme, or a sustainable job.
The implementation plan for the Northern Ireland strategy on apprenticeships will ensure the new model of apprenticeships is in place by 2016. However, the landscape will not remain unchanged until then and stakeholders will see positive and incremental change over the coming months.
As part of that implementation, I will continue to pilot higher level apprenticeships in ICT and engineering and recently announced the development of a new pilot higher level civil engineering apprenticeship with the Department for Regional Development.
Further education colleges are also introducing new higher level apprenticeships pilots in chemical and life sciences and finance and accountancy with plans to develop one in aeronautical engineering. These apprenticeships have been developed between the colleges and industry, building on the colleges’ excellent links with employers and will have long-term benefits for the economy.
The apprenticeship strategy is driven by strategic partnership, putting employers at its very heart, better matching supply with demand, and providing opportunities in a much wider range of occupations. I believe it will transform the concept of apprenticeships locally to capture the opportunities of the modern, knowledge-based economy.