We redefined our role recently through a strategy process and now see it as increasing the employability skills and mobility of job seekers and employees to meet labour market needs, thereby promoting competitiveness and social inclusion. We are trying to capture the notion that we have, on the one hand, an economic obligation and, on the other, a social obligation.
During 2001, the most recent and most relevant year, we held training courses for unemployed persons and job seekers. Some 21,800 went through these courses, 80% of whom are in employment. Apprentice numbers have risen from around 11,000 or 12,000 a few years ago to more than 25,800 at present. Thirty three thousand six hundred were involved in employment schemes at the end of the year.
We held large-scale training courses for persons in employment during the year. We trained 10,000 retail workers in preparation for the euro launch, while 10,000 construction workers have obtained the safe pass which places an obligation on the construction industry in terms of health and safety in the workplace. That is an activity in which we will invest even more resources this year.
We have a range of training services for people with disabilities, and almost 2,000 people went through the system last year. We have put a lot of effort into increasing female participation in our programmes. Some 42,000 women began FÁS programmes in 2001 while some 56% of our non-employer sponsored FÁS trainees were women. Again in 2002, a new childcare allowance was introduced for eligible FÁS trainees which will help the process of involving women in our training programmes and, by extension, the workplace.
Training and employment support for early school leavers is another activity in which we had more than 5,000 starters last year. An activity for which we received a great deal of publicity last year in the context of major redundancies was a package we put together for interacting with people about to lose their jobs. Where we know a major redundancy package is coming, we try to ensure, where possible, we find the employees concerned alternative employment or identify the skills they might require rather than wait until they actually become unemployed. We do this in consultation with the trade unions and management on site.
We have held a targeted overseas recruitment campaign with a large one up to the first quarter of last year. Since then, recognising the changing economic circumstances, we have rolled back on it, but still have a great deal of activity with EU partners' employment services across the Union.
A major activity in conjunction with the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is the employment action programme. The work we have done together has resulted in a huge number of people leaving the live register, even without a major intervention on our part.
There has been a significant increase in e-learning activity through our newly established FÁS Net College. We now have 2,500 people learning over the Internet, a service we hope to develop. Our budget last year was €830 million and will be in the order of €887 million this year.
I mentioned that, because of the changing labour market mentioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we spent most of last year re-examining our role, the consequence of which was a new statement of strategy for the organisation. I will not bore members with the detail, but for anyone who is interested, copies are available.
A major element of the strategy is promoting investment in the training of people in employment. This relates to the need to ensure people in employment are upskilled to recognise the changing nature of employment and also to capture a group sucked out of the school system by the offer of what appeared to be very attractive salaries at the time. As we all know, they would be the first to lose their jobs in the downturn.
A recent survey of training in the economy suggested about 2.5% of payroll on average is spent by Irish companies on training. The general view is that best practice suggests it should be between 3% and 5%. There is a reality behind the 2.5% figure which suggests that indigenous companies are probably the poorest in terms of investing in training. The higher end would tend to be the multinational companies located here whose investment in training would tend to be in the 3% to 5% bracket.