Apprenticeships are essentially subsidised on-the-job training in a professional work environment. As youth unemployment levels ballooned in recent years, governments in many countries, including the UK, have looked to the apprenticeship model as one method of keeping young people connected to the labour market.
Apprenticeship schemes can provide employers with a healthy stream of skilled labour supply and make it easier for firms to quickly adapt when demand conditions in the economy pick up.
Employers in the UK, including those in Northern Ireland, continuously warn government that they are unable to find new recruits with the right skills and work experience, so the apprenticeship model is an obvious answer to addressing that skills gap.
Some employers have found it so difficult in the past to get the right skills for their organisation that they have developed their own in-house independent apprentice schemes – the Rolls Royce Apprentice Academy is one such example. But smaller and medium-sized companies are unlikely to have the capacity, or the resources, to establish their own training schemes and so government organised and subsidised programmes are the perfect solution.
Government’s role in the apprenticeship system is however not just about the financial subsidy.
For these training schemes to maximise benefits to both employers and trainees, it is important that they are competency-based and the apprentice attains a sufficient number of hours of on-the-job training.
In addition, it is vital that local colleges are heavily involved with industry and government departments so that they can ensure the study element of apprenticeship training is highly relevant. For Northern Ireland, the Department for Employment and Learning will need to be closely aligned to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for this purpose.
International experience shows that well-regulated apprenticeship schemes will not just provide individuals with higher wage returns over a lifetime, but also raise employment opportunities.
They are by no means restricted to school-leavers and have been shown to be a perfect solution for up-skilling or re-skilling redundant workers of all ages. Benefits are economy-wide.
The individual gains experience and the chance to shine in front of a potential employer, employers get a well-skilled workforce and government can adjust apprenticeships to meet local labour market needs and address labour shortages.