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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Dec 1993

Vol. 436 No. 6

Industrial Training (Apprenticeship Levy) Bill, 1993: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Reform of the apprenticeship system has been on the agenda for 20 years and it is not satisfactory that the Minister should tell us at this stage that one of the key issues, equity of access to apprenticeships, is still unresolved and expect us to take in good faith that FÁS will produce a solution in the course of the Bill's passage through the House. Frankly, I do not believe FÁS will be able to do so. We should not be debating this Bill when such an important component is still not in place. As I said before we adjourned, it is clearly envisaged in the draft scheme that FÁS will keep a register of people interested in apprenticeships. That is the type of system that has brought discredit on FÁS. The last thing people want to do is to turn up at FÁS offices to put their name at the end of a long list which everyone knows will not be used by employers when recruiting apprentices. The scheme makes it quite clear that recruitment of apprentices will be the responsibility of employers and it makes it equally clear that employers have no obligation to consult this so-called register.

In the Bill it is stated that the register will be brought to the attention of employers on request. Clearly that is not satisfactory. It is not intended that FÁS will sponsor apprenticeships under the new scheme so that the traditional gateway for people who do not have a background in a particular trade or skill of going to FÁS and getting an opportunity to compete for a place on an apprenticeship is wiped out by this reform. That is not acceptable. I think FÁS should be doing the screening and shortlisting of applicants for apprenticeships, and it should then present a short list of suitable people for interview if the employers are going to recruit people to apprenticeships. FÁS would then be the main determinant of suitability. This would allow FÁS to control factors, such as the 10 per cent intake of women, to which the Minister has committed herself. There is absolutely no guarantee that employers on a random selection will meet any quota in regard to disabilities, gender balance and so on.

The recent report of the Commission on the Status of Women lays it on the line that it wants to see a timescale in which the target will be achieved and that the target should be achieved step by step so that in each year we would set a target and know how we had performed against it. The reality is that under this scheme the Government will have no control over meeting the target unless it decides to subsidise employers to discriminate in favour of women. That will add to the cost burden of the scheme for which the taxpayer is already providing very substantial sums.

My main point is that I find it very difficult to accept this Bill against the background of that issue being unresolved. Of course, I will listen to what the Minister has to say in the course of Committee and Report Stages. However, at this stage I am sceptical about the role of FÁS because this issue has been through committees and subcommittees of the social partners for the past 20 years and it is very hard to believe that a chief executive or any other inspired person in FÁS will produce a solution to this question which appears to have defied solution in the 20 years to date.

I welcome the change of emphasis to the attainment of standards in place of serving time. That is a positive change. I welcome also that there will be specified period of off-the-job training phased throughout the period of apprenticeship. However, I question whether the envisaged period of off-the-job training of 40 weeks is adequate. It certainly would not be adequate that ten weeks per year be allocated to off-the-job training. One of the main advantages of moving to a system of attainment of standards is that there would not be an obligation on apprentices to serve for a period of four years as their performance would be judged on the attainment of standard.

As we are reforming our leaving certificate programme to encourage students to take a vocational element for that examination, it is clear that in the future more young people will leave second level education with much of the prior work done to equip them to complete apprenticeships quickly and effectively. How does the Minister propose, though, to gel the new leaving certificate qualification for a vocational stream with entry into apprenticeships?

It was interesting to see the recent NESC report on education and training, which showed that currently only 20 per cent of our pupils take vocational options compared with 50 to 60 per cent in Denmark and the Netherlands. In reforming the apprenticeship scheme we should look at the models in other countries where more people take vocational modules in their basic training.

I can see what the Minister is driving at in proposing to extend apprenticeships to a wider range of trades, but are we unwittingly going to end up with loading more and more of our training occupations into an apprenticeship system which has proved to be inflexible and difficult to reform? When the Minister has achieved her target will we perhaps in five years' time be trying to reform the system to get something which is flexible and will respond to the needs of the workplace? We all want to see certification so that qualified people can have a standard that will be useful to them in other countries, but it is wrong to reverse training opportunities in a wide range of occupations into a system where the employers are controlling the entry. In a few years time we could find that there is even more social exclusion as a result of decisions taken now. I challenged the Minister to produce hard evidence that we are not making errors which we will regret.

I am worried that many of the apprenticeships are in industries which are in serious decline. The furniture industry is in serious difficulties. There has been a 10 per cent decline in the building industry in the last three years. When the State produced figures on unemployment in the building industry, they were astronomical and indicated that 25 per cent of building industry workers were unemployed. The trends were so awful that the Government did not produce figures they would not like to stand over.

Are we developing a very expensive system of training for skills that are in decline? We must provide for people in these areas, but it raises serious questions about who will control entry into these skills. When there is overcapacity in a skill and many people with the skill are unemployed, there could be significant pressure from employers, who want to recruit a family member or to do a favour for someone, to recruit such people into an apprenticeship opportunity in a sector which is already oversupplied. Are we handing over to employers the decisions about the levels of intake for these different skills? I did not hear from the Minister how decisions about intake will be made and that is critical.

FÁS has projected that a growth of 7,000 skilled people in the building industry will be needed in the next six or eight years. If we had proper data on the skill base of our unemployed we might find that considerable numbers have the skills which we are gearing our training system to provide. The newly recruited apprentice will clearly be much more attractive to an employer than someone who has completed training perhaps 20 years earlier and has been unemployed for six months. We must balance the numbers of entrants against proper information on the skill base of the unemployed. It is an indictment of successive Governments that we have not compiled appropriate information on the skill base and capacities of the unemployed. Up to 1988 we had limited information, but that has not been replaced. We need to tailor commitments made in the training area to the people already there and to make appropriate decisions about the numbers who will be trained in different skills at the taxpayers' expense.

The levy is the core of this Bill, and I have some difficulties about it. We are adding another quarter of 1 per cent to employment costs. I recently spoke to a prominent business person in the services sector who told me that when businesses have paid 21 per cent PRSI, 21 per cent VAT and 40 per cent profits tax, they find that they have only 3p in the pound left to keep the businesses going. The Minister may say that a quarter of 1 per cent is not very much, but it is still a quarter of one penny out of the 3p they have to keep the business going. In many businesses the quarter of 1 per cent can be critical.

I recognise that Ireland has a problem in that our employers have not been spontaneously willing to make commitments to training, as has been the case in other countries, and we are short of instruments to encourage people to get involved in training. The levy system, plus the apprenticeship, is a bit like the old levy and grant system which was discredited and abolished. The principle of it was clearly attractive in that people paid the levy and then were encouraged to draw down the benefit by recruiting. The principle in this proposal is attractive and businesses should see the value in taking on apprentices. I hope employers will respond in that way, but I have misgivings about the fact that it costs another quarter of 1 per cent on top of a series of levies already there and there is no threshold. It will clearly be a heavier burden on employers who employ lower paid workers.

The proposal has all the undesirable features of levies as a system of taxation. I am disappointed that something a little bit more imaginative was not put together to produce an equitable lvey which would get a commitment to this scheme from employers. Given that the Minister has assured us that employers have signed on for this scheme, we will have to give it the benefit of the doubt, hope that it works out that we see a greater commitment to training as a result.

The jury is out in regard to the success of this scheme. The one quarter of the 1 per cent levy reduces the Minister's leverage in negotiating a fairer system of entry into the trade. Employers will regard themselves as having paid the piper and should, therefore, call the tune. If the Minister is determined to have equitable recruitment the one quarter of the 1 per cent levy imposed on employers may run counter to her determination. Employers will believe they have rights which they purchased by their tax payment and can, therefore, decide who should be recruited to the apprenticeship system. We will not know the credibility of this proposal until we see the Minister's final proposals about the system of recruitment and her negotiations with employers.

The issue of multi-skilling causes me considerable concern. The reports published by Culliton and Tansey and Roche highlighted the weaknesses in our training regime. Many of their findings are irrelevant to this debate, but they highlighted the lack of multi-skilling as a feature of the Irish workforce. Will reform of the apprenticeship system address that matter? In my view the designation system based on traditional demarcations is heading in the opposite direction to multi-skilling. The introduction of multi-skilling should mean the abolition of demarcations. We should produce flexible apprenticeships with modules that major in one skill and at the same time, carry important modules in others. That is not provided for in the Minister's proposal. Rather, it appears the old demarcations have rumbled on into this system and we will be lumbered with what existed for the past 20 years.

Some people believe that system has served us well and, in general, employers believe that FÁS contributed to the success of the scheme and that should be acknowledged. However, are we flying in the face of those we pay to recommend where we should go in the future and who have said that multi-skilling must become a feature in this system? Perhaps this system has evolved because traditionally it required low standards of entry and the introduction of multi-skilling will mean people will require higher educational qualifications. That matter must be addressed also.

The Minister stated that the apprenticeship scheme should be open to people from the age of 16 who have obtained five grade Ds in their junior certificate but most people would not encourage students to leave school after sitting their junior certificate. Have we faced up to that issue in introducing this apprenticeship scheme? Should we not encourage such people to sit the leaving certificate and tailor the leaving certificate programme to encourage them to do so? In that way, when they enter the apprenticeship system they would have the multi-skilling requirements and the flexibility we are told they will have to embrace in their future working lives.

There is a hint of the past about the reform we are being asked to take on board today which causes me a great deal of unease. I accept we are only debating the levy and not the apprenticeship system, but we are making do with second best in relation to reform of the apprenticeship programme.

It is interesting to note from documentation published by FÁS that the representation of women in some skilled areas is not as low as one would expect. For example, out of a total of 86,000 employed in the skilled production area, 15,000 are women, much more than 10 per cent. Perhaps we are setting a low target by aiming at 10 per cent. I would like to hear the Minister's view on how she expects to attract more women into the non-traditional areas of employment. The pre-apprenticeship training programme plays an important role in that regard but girls do not have an opportunity to study some of those subjects at school. In other words, they are closed off at an early stage.

I am sure Members from all sides will welcome the fact that there will be independent certification. I did not have an adequate opportunity to study the Minister's contribution in detail, but I hope she will not base those certifications on the British system. Rather, we should base them on the European model as recommended in many studies. Evaluation is critical. Under this legislation we are imposing a tax on employers and a duty on taxpayers to pick up the balance. Equally, there should be a commitment in the legislation to evaluation in the public area. It is frustrating that any significant evaluation by FÁS were carried out in private and public representatives, who are expected to debate the value for money of State expenditure were not allowed access.

During the recent debates on the national plan, it was particularly frustrating that we did not have access to basic information on the success of existing programmes. That is particularly apposite of FÁS because, as far as I am aware, the statistics on which the evaluation for the last round of Structural Funds spending by FÁS were carried out in 1989. They were compiled before the programme was initiated and we were expected to accept the worth of programmes based on figures collected as far back as 1989. A proper evaluation must be carried out in public involving the social partners, particularly employers, who are being asked to pay for this scheme. It must also involve others with skills in the evaluation of programmes. It should not be left up to FÁS to evaluate its work. Nobody should be allowed to make judge and jury decisions about the value of his or her work. This programme should be evaluated aginst pre-set targets.

The Minister should tell us the targets she expects the apprenticeship programme to achieve in respect of, for example, multi-skilling, the number of placements, the access of women to courses, the standards reached and so on. We must have pre-set targets so that we know where the money is being spent, following which there must be an evaluation to ensure we achieve those targets. We must compare ourselves with other countries. A series of studies have been carried out in the past six months by NESC, the Culliton group and Anto Kerins which compared training here with that in other countries and, universally, we are not up to scratch. We must continually evaluate ourselves against our competitors and that is critical in regard to apprenticeships.

I welcome this Bill and commend the Minister of State for introducing it in the House promptly, in fulfilment of the commitment in the Programme for Government.

This is a small but key element in putting in place a properly funded, planned, supervised and certified apprenticeship system. This is essential bearing in mind the high level of youth unemployment and the urgent necessity to provide a world class workforce which will enable us to compete with our competitors in an open and difficult market.

It is no harm to remind ourselves that the current position in relation to the training of apprentices is unacceptable and unsustainable. Large numbers of young people who wish to undertake apprenticeship training are finding it impossible to do so. It is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain places on long term courses. Short term courses are no substitute for properly designed apprenticeship training leading to certification and the prospect of a good job.

In addition, large numbers of young people are finding it impossible to find suitable sponsors. This is unjust and unfair and represents a poor investment in our young people and the next generation. For this reason I welcome any move to put in place a proper system of apprenticeship training.

In any new system it is essential that there are proper procedures governing entry to apprenticeships. Currently there is a lack of transparency. Parents constantly complain that young people are sponsored not on the basis of their aptitude, ability or capability but rather on the basis of who they know within the industry. This is unjust and unfair and it must be remedied. I hope this legislation will be referred to a select committee so that we will have sufficient time to discuss any amendments. In this regard I advise the Minister of State to ensure that there will be proper procedures governing entry into apprenticeships.

There should be an official register in which young people who wish to take part in an apprenticeship scheme could be registered officially by a body such as FÁS. Employers who wish to take on or sponsor apprentices would draw them from this register. This is important and I ask the Minister of State to accept this suggestion. As I said, large numbers of people have complained that there is a lack of transparency and equity. Many parents feel aggrieved and complain that there is a lack of fair play in the system. We should ensure proper criteria governing the admission of young people into apprenticeships. Deputy Bruton also mentioned that there was a need for proper controls governing entry. We do not want to control the number of entrants but rather argue that in an effort to be fair people of equal ability should have an equal chance.

This new apprenticeship system which is evolving will be employer led and standard based. This presents us with an interesting set of possibilities and challenges. I suggest to the Minister of State that she will have her work cut out in making sure she gets a commitment from a large body of employers to ensure that the system will work well. In this regard she will have to confer with the umbrella bodies for employers so that adequate provision is made within industry for on the job training.

I would like to refer in particular to the current position in the construction industry. There was a time when one could look to that industry to take on young people but the position has changed dramatically in recent years mainly due to the changes that have taken place within the industry. It is now more splintered and fragmented with big companies contracting work to subcontractors who in turn contract it to others, so that at the end of the day what is everybody's business is nobody's business. As a result very few people within the construction industry feel that they have a social obligation to look after apprentices. There is a need therefore to put in place a proper system of apprenticeship training for trades within the construction industry, which will continue to be a major employer. In turn, the industry should be prepared to take on its fair complement of young people.

I advise the Minister of State to enter into dialogue with the industry to see if the current position can be improved and if a better system can be put in place. It would be a tragedy if we found ourselves in a position where there was a shortage of people with skills. There is a possibility that this could happen if we do not take the necessary steps. The Minister of State must enter into dialogue with employers, particularly in the construction industry. If this apprenticeship scheme is to be employer led employers will have to be convinced that it will be of direct benefit and to give a strong commitment. It is possible, as Deputy Bruton said, that they may see this as just another levy and one more demand but this can be justified given the obligation on all of us to make sure that we invest in our young people, bearing in mind the high level of unemployment.

I want to say a number of things about standards. I understand that the curriculum is being redesigned and revised. I ask the Minister to ensure that there is a very strong input from education as well as from training. That is fundamentally important for a number of reasons. The nature of the basic education often determines how far a person with initial training can go. I have found that people with a good basic education to begin with become the people who are not satisfied with just basic training but are prepared to invest their own time in upgrading and updating their skills. That is fundamentally important. We must get right the mix as between formal education and training. I hope that in the development and overseeing of the curriculum there will be a strong input both from education and training.

If we are to attain the kind of standards set out in this Bill — and I see no reason why we should not — it is important to train apprentices in such a way that they will have the kind of mobility that will enable them to work abroad; even while training, they could move about between member countries of the EC. If that is to be our objective there will have to be a certain element of modern language learning in addition to off-the-job training. Simply put, if a good keen and skilled apprentice wants to do an exchange programme with a counterpart in Germany, Denmark or Holland it is most important to have fluency in the relevant spoken language. We should not put barriers on young people's potential. People who want to take up the kind of apprenticeship schemes that we have in mind ought to be offered some element of modern language training because the kind of certification we have in mind here will be of such a standard as to enable them to work on a par with their counterparts in other European countries. Giving them the narrow skills without the communication skills is not enough. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind and make sure that modern European languages are included in the training of young people and that generally there is an emphasis on communication.

I would like to see well-trained apprentices with the kind of motivation required to set up their own businesses and become employers themselves. There was a time when we had the culture of the workshop or the cornershop. People worked for themselves and offered their services to the general public. Once qualified, they saw themselves not so much as employees but as people working for themselves who, in turn, would develop and become employers. In working out the educational module for off-the-job training it is important to incorporate management skills so that people trained under the apprenticeship scheme will in ten years' time be able to work for themselves.

This is the kind of sea-change that we need to bring about in this country, and we must aim for it at every level of education and training. We must aim to put in place the kind of enterprise culture that we talk about. Often the people who are attracted to the trades and crafts are very enterprising and creative people by nature. They are the people who are prepared to experiment and go into business in their own right. These are qualities that we must try to nurture in the next generation. I see these as key qualities that must be built into any system of training of apprentices. Our ultimate aim is to bring our apprentices up to the level of educational training that currently obtains in countries like Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Deputy Richard Bruton spoke about the age of intake, and 16 is what is recommended in this Bill. Deputy Bruton said that perhaps nowadays apprentices should be taken on later. I would like to see that area explored fully. I know it was the subject of a very big argument in Germany about 20 years ago. The argument then was that at an older age people had lost the flexibility required to do part of the work that would be demanded within an apprenticeship and that the ideal age was about 16. That may now be changing. I see changes, particularly as a result of the new three-tiered leaving certificate that is being put in place whereby there will now be a level of leaving certificate with a strong element of vocational training. When that is in place and is seen to be working successfully we may be able to alter the age of intake for apprentices. That is a point I would like to see borne in mind.

I welcome the changes being brought about now in the senior certificate curriculum in second level schools. They will result in the creation of a good basis for providing young people who are already well-prepared, well-geared and well-motivated for apprenticeship courses. In any new programme we must keep as much formal education as we can in addition to training. I would point in particular to the Cork Regional College, which has an extremely high level of apprenticeship training. I know that every apprentice in this country can or should aim to attain those heights. However, the level of attainment there is due to the very strong co-ordination there is between FÁS and education and is between education and training, including the co-ordination of ideas, of schemes, of programmes and the will to work together.

Earlier this summer apprentices from Cork Regional College competed in a world apprenticeship competition in Taiwan and came out with gold, leaving behind their counterparts from every other European country. I make that point to demonstrate the ability that young people in this country have if they are given the proper education, training and motivation. The raw material is there. It is up to us to put in place the system that will unleash their potential. It can be done. We do not lag behind any country and we have no need to do so if we put in place better schemes, where the curriculum is properly prepared, where there is ongoing and continuous assessment to ensure that what is laid out in the curriculum is adhered to in every respect, both on the job and off the job, and whose certification at the end of the training is on a par with standards in every other country.

There are one or two other points I want to make, particularly in relation to women in apprenticeships. The outlook for women in apprenticeships is not as bleak as we thought it was. There used to be a sense of surprise when one saw a woman in a traditionally male-dominated area but that time has gone. Career guidance teachers in second level schools should place more emphasis on influencing young women to consider the potential of apprenticeships. There is a need to develop apprenticeship courses in areas such as hairdressing, the retail trade and textile manufacturing. Women employed in those areas often receive low pay because they have a low level of training. Often those jobs involve a low level of productivity and that is costly in the long term. I ask the Minister to raise the level of training for women, thereby raising the status of women and the level of productivity.

Jobs are emerging in many areas which we have not addressed. In Germany there are more people employed in the arts, crafts and entertainment media industries than there are in the motor industry. That is an extraordinary development. When one thinks of Germany one thinks of the home of the Volkswagon and the great manufacturing tradition of that country, but changes have taken place in industries there through modern technology. We must consider where new jobs will be found for the next generation. There is no point in training young people for trades that have become obsolete. We must look to where the potential jobs are. Jobs are emerging in arts, crafts and entertainment media areas. We must ensure we have in place technicians, crafts people and trades persons who are capable of creating jobs in those areas of potential development. We should design proper training and apprenticeship courses to develop that great potential. We must train people for jobs which they may be able to create and for the real jobs that will exist and not for those that will become obsolete.

We are making a major investment in infrastructure. We are building better roads, improved bridges, improving our telecommunications and building interpretative centres. We are investing a great deal of money in those developments because we will be able to create a better future for our country and compete on an even basis with competitor countries in the European Union and the wider world market. If we are prepared to make that level of investment in the physical fabric of our country, how much more prepared must we be to make a similar investment in human resources in the education and training of our young people? We will attain our full potential if our young people have the appropriate skills and motivation. We must be prepared to make that level of investment.

I commend the Minister for promptly introducing this Bill and I look forward to discussing it in greater detail on Committee Stage. There are many areas in which we can aspire to put in place the type of system that will do justice to our young people.

Debate adjourned.