Last year, The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, outlined its Action Plan for Apprenticeship – a five-year plan which seeks to deliver a modern apprenticeship system that is reflective of Irish society and supports both learners and employers. As part of this, a new National Apprenticeship Office has been set up, so we interviewed Dr. Mary Liz Trant, its Director about the new office, her plans for the year ahead and what she expects the apprenticeship landscape might look like in the next five years.
In recent years the landscape around apprenticeships in Ireland has changed dramatically – this is no small part due to the support and vision from Government who have placed a strong focus on building a robust and sustainable apprenticeship system. Dr. Mary-Liz Trant, formerly of SOLAS, is Director of the National Apprenticeship Office and she recently sat down with Paula Hodson, Director of Education and Development at The Insurance Institute to talk all things apprenticeships!
Mary-Liz congratulations on your new position as the Director of the National Apprenticeship Office - can you tell me a little about the job and what it will entail?
Thank you very much, it’s an exciting position and a privilege to be involved in the start-up phase of the National Apprenticeship Office. The last 8 weeks or so have been busy, as interim Director I have been getting a transition team for the Office in place, liaising closely with SOLAS and HEA on the transition arrangements, working on the implementation of the Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025, and supporting the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in establishing the new National Apprenticeship Alliance.
Can you tell me more about the new National Apprenticeship Office, why there was a need to set one up and what its key objectives are?
Government has shown decisively that apprenticeships are a vital and relevant force in developing Ireland’s skills base, and now more than ever before, apprenticeships are key in delivering on national priorities. Following extensive growth during 2014-2021, Minister Simon Harris TD and Government colleagues believed that there was a need for a National Apprenticeship Office to act as a catalyst and a pioneer for system innovation and further growth. The new Office will deliver essential apprenticeship activities, supporting and stimulating the growth of apprenticeship provision, developing a single, integrated system, and leading strategic apprenticeship promotion and effective dialogue with stakeholders.
As you take on this new and exciting role, can you tell me what your key focus will be for the year ahead?
My main focus this year is to get the National Apprenticeship Office running smoothly and delivering on the ambition for apprenticeships as set out in the Action Plan for Apprenticeship. A strong, supportive apprenticeship community has been developed over the past 5 years, and while really challenging, the pandemic has strengthened these partnerships and the commitment people have to working together and supporting each other. The new structures – the National Apprenticeship Office and the National Apprenticeship Alliance – can help enhance this community approach even more, as we work towards that target of 10,000 apprentice registrations per year by 2025.
The figures released recently show a record number of apprentice registrations, which is wonderful - in your opinion what has contributed to this surge?
I think there were probably two main things that contributed to the growth in apprentice registrations in 2021 – 8,607 registrations across the year. The first was pent-up demand among employers from 2021 when so many places of work were either shut down or very restricted in their operations. As things started to open up again in the second half of 2021 there was a corresponding bounce in registrations. The second thing was the €3,000 grant available per newly registered apprentice to employers as part of the 2020 July Stimulus package introduced by Government and extended to the end of 2021. We will be doing a survey of employers later this year and will get more robust data, however feedback from many to-date indicate that this incentive was influential in encouraging employers to hire apprentices in much larger numbers in 2021.
The apprenticeship landscape has changed dramatically in recent years - how do you see it looking in the next five years?
Interesting question! The ambitious goal in the Action Plan is to create a single integrated system for apprenticeships nationally, a system that is even more highly valued by learners and employers, and that is inclusive and accessible for all. I would hope that in 5 years’ time we will have achieved that. And the key indicators, the number of apprentices registering each year, the number of employers using apprenticeship as a talent pipeline, and detailed feedback from both of these main user groups confirm what we have achieved.
In the past apprenticeships might have been perceived as for school leavers only, can I ask how you plan to attract a diverse age group to the apprenticeship programmes available?
I saw some really interesting age-related data recently; would you believe that we have over 1,500 apprentices who are 35 years or older, and the newer national apprenticeships which lead to advanced qualifications tend to attract older learners. And of course, The Insurance Practitioner apprentice population of c.150 is about half and half of under 25s and over 25s. That said it is probably true that the perception of apprenticeships being for school leavers is still out there. The National Apprenticeship Office is planning a dedicated campaign later this year to promote apprenticeship opportunities for all age groups, and we hope to work with The Insurance Institute and other industry partners on this.
Increasing the number of women apprentices has been a key focus of yours in recent years - will this continue to be a priority?
It most definitely will continue as a priority. While we have made progress, going from just 26 women apprentices in 2015 to 1,500 this year, there is still so much to do. 1,500 women represents only about 6% of the overall apprentice population and there are still about a dozen apprenticeships with not a single woman apprentice. The new gender-based bursary, which is being introduced this year should help drive further progress, we’re finalising the details of this at the moment, and they will be published next month.
The volume and variety of apprenticeship programmes coming on stream is increasing every year - are there any new and interesting ones which we might not have heard about?
I’m delighted to say that three new apprenticeship programmes are launching this month – Bar Manager, Wind Turbine Maintenance Technician and Transport Operations & Commercial Driver. That brings the number of national apprenticeships up to 65 and we expect to have up to 70 new programmes available by the end of the year. There is a Cybersecurity Practitioner apprenticeship at an advanced stage of development, leading to a Level 8 award. This will complement the existing Cybersecurity apprenticeship at Level 6. Another to mention is an apprenticeship in Quantity Surveying. There are also a lot of industry-led groups now making proposals for new apprenticeships which is exciting.
Financial support for apprentice employers, including the new Apprenticeship Employer Grant, is hugely positive - what do you hope these sorts of supports will achieve?
The major goal with employer supports is to further establish apprenticeships as a talent pipeline in companies of all sizes, whether micro, small, medium or large, and across all industries around the country. Since 2016 we have had a tagline describing the ambition for apprenticeships to become ‘a major route to skills development in Ireland’. Currently just over 8,400 employers use apprenticeships for their recruitment and retention. It would be fantastic to see that number double over the next 5 years and to create those job opportunities for apprentices of all ages and backgrounds, regionally and nationally.
Do you have any advice for prospective apprentices or employers who might be interested in getting involved in The Insurance Practitioner Apprenticeship this year?
The fact that The Insurance Practitioner Apprenticeship is now well-established and there is such positive feedback from apprentice graduates and employers is extremely powerful. That kind of track record has only been achieved with time and as a result of the dedication of The Insurance Institute team, the apprenticeship consortium and IT Sligo as education providers. I would be advising prospective employers and apprentices to do their research, to check out the programme via the relevant websites, to hear what employers and graduate apprentices are saying about the programme and to learn more about what a fantastic opportunity it is.