One would have thought that the process of change and reform identified in the 1986 White Paper on Manpower would have led long before now to the measures introduced by the Minister of State. Unfortunately, it took some time to complete the analysis. In 1987, FÁS was asked to modernise the training system and to make recommendations. In 1989, a discussion document was produced and it drew the inevitable response by way of a raft of submissions. A report was presented to the Minister for Labour in 1990. In 1991 under the Programme for Economic and Social Progress a national apprenticeship advisory committee was established which was followed by the Culliton report and the report of the Moriarty Task Force. Finally, in 1993 the changes in the funding arrangements and the apprenticeship training system were announced and now this legislation has been introduced. I wish to pay tribute to the Minister of State who within three months of her appointment announced that she would introduce this Bill and an apprenticeship scheme which she hoped would serve the country well for many years.
Measures designed to introduce changes for the better are welcome but I am extremely worried that many of the problems that have arisen as the current apprenticeship scheme falls into disrepute have not been resolved. Time and again our hearts have gone out to those who have come to our clinics with what one might describe as "two good hands and a good head", who have spent months hawking his or her talents to the medium and small employer circuit and who are punch drunk and demoralised having been told repeatedly, "sorry, we have no place for you". I have seen dozens of people from my constituency end up with sledgehammers and pickaxes doing raw boned labour on building sites in Dublin or Dundee living not alone on much lower wages but also with the bottled up frustration associated with untapped talent and, in some cases, downright genius.
The reason is that over the years FÁS has progressively reduced the number of direct FÁS-sponsored places in its training centres and switched the emphasis in the direction in which the new proposals are based, that is, insisting that more apprentices must be sponsored by employers. It is this policy which has led to the merry-go-round of myriad refusals and the eventual exclusion of many talented young people.
The reality is that the best employers of young apprentices have, traditionally, been the small and medium-sized businesses but the economic recession has wreaked havoc on these and, by extension, on the apprenticeship scheme. Deputy Rabbitte alluded to the fact that far too many employers regard training as a cost; they do not see the benefit for their company in skill enhancement. We have to accept that many companies which have traditionally employed apprentices cannot afford to sponsor them. In many cases, we are talking about companies with slender profit margins, huge overheads such as rates, levies, PRSI, over-extended credit and cashflow problems. Many are barely able to keep their heads above water with excessive bank charges. Many of the good traditional sponsors of apprentices under the old National Manpower and FÁS schemes were soured by their experiences. They were snowed under and bewildered by the paperwork involved in taking on an apprentice electrician, carpenter or plumber. We seem to be obsessed with red tape and this is killing jobs, enthusiasm and initiative and it has led to the closing off of opportunities for many young people to avail of apprenticeship training.
I am aware that FÁS will deny this but I have seen it happen; when a person from a reasonably comfortable background, without the same manual skills and ability as someone from a less well off background, was unable to obtain sponsorship their parents were able to go to an employer, for example, in my constituency, and undertake to pay the wages, the PRSI and do the paperwork if they would be allowed to use the company name and stamp as sponsor. That is the only way they could get around or circumvent the system and it worked but the problem was that the talented young person in many cases was excluded. There is a danger that this will happen again because companies are genuinely reluctant, for financial considerations, to enter sponsorship arrangements.
The number of companies who support apprentices has been reduced considerably because employers were disgruntled at the fact that FÁS was tardy in reimbursing them for apprentices' wages and other additional costs. This red tape and foot-dragging killed the goodwill not alone of the many employers who were well disposed but also frightened off many other prospective sponsors. Even if the economic recession lifts and there is a tendency or a willingness on the part of a company to sponsor more apprentices companies will not be amenable unless there is a major public relations drive to sell the new apprenticeship arrangement and erase the bad memories some companies had under the former scheme. In this regard, it is vital that career guidance counsellors — there is a number of excellent career guidance counsellors — and FÁS officials establish a bridgehead immediately with employers, a portfolio of receptive companies and dismantle whatever barriers exist and dispel any anxiety or worries companies may have. Any new scheme will have to be simplified, modified, streamlined and devoid of red tape.
Measures designed to introduce changes for the better are welcome. Ultimately, what I want to know and, more importantly, what numerous would-be apprentices want to know is whether we can guarantee that the manually gifted young people, many of whom have failed to gain access to apprenticeship courses up to now, will be guaranteed access and entry under the new appenticeship arrangements. I am extremely apprehensive that the small but valuable number of directly sponsored FÁS apprenticeships will not be a feature of the new scheme. In his contribution Deputy Ryan asked what would happen if an apprentice two years into his course found that the company had gone out of business. There will have to be a safety net to rescue these people. Apart from this, a number of places should be retained by FÁS.
This scheme will be employer led and unless a person can get an employer to sponsor him or her there is no way that they will be able to avail of apprenticeship training. We have been told that the number of apprentices will be increased but I cannot see this happening because this scheme will be employer led and, irrespective of the way we might encourage companies in the interests of skill enhancement which is vitally important, companies will not be in a position to give a commitment to guarantee employment for an apprenticeship for a minimum of three years allowing intermittent breaks to attend off-the-job training at FÁS centres, regional technical colleges and so on. Undoubtedly, some companies will, but I cannot envisage the anticipated boom envisaged by supporters of the Bill.
I like the mix whereby there will be seven phases. Phases one, three, five and seven will involve on-the-job training while phase two will involve training with FÁS and phases four and six will involve training with the regional technical colleges or the Dublin Institute of Technology colleges. It is a good mix but, again, I seek clarification. Like Deputies O'Keeffe, Ryan and other speakers, I believe there should be no dilution of the education content. The Teachers' Union of Ireland expressed reservations about this aspect.
I have been reading the Minister's comments as the Teachers' Union of Ireland has reacted. The Minister makes a valid point that many apprentices are now going in with leaving certificates; heretofore they were going in with group certificates. From the point of view of receptivity, flexibility and adaptability, the maximum education component possible should be retained.
Deputy Quill spoke about the drastic shortage of working opportunities for young people nowadays. The crisis in unemployment for young people is underlined by the fact that the Dublin City Manager recently confirmed that a public advertisement to fill two vacancies for fire brigade staff attracted 2,319 applications. The ESB's annual advertisement for electrical apprentices this year attracted responses from 7,500 applicants but there were only 50 apprenticeships; 7,450 young people were disappointed. For training in its three constituent companies, Iarnrod Éireann, Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus, CIE had 2,500 applications for 53 apprenticeship positions. The 36 Army apprenticeship and 30 Air Corps apprenticeships attracted over 4,000 applications. Bord na Móna, which for years trained a large number of high quality apprentices, took on only four apprentices last September in the peat energy section and another two apprentices in the solid fuels section. The situation, therefore, is critical.
Over 15,000 students doing the leaving certificate each year do not get into college either because they do not meet the academic criteria for entry or because of financial circumstances. We should be seriously looking at whether the apprenticeship scheme will meet the requirements of these students. In light of the fact that many of these companies receive substantial amounts of Government equity the Minister should talk to these companies to see if they might lead the way by taking on additional apprentices.
There is a major problem in relation to apprenticeships for girls. One of the problems seems to be psychological as evidenced by the ESB report in which it is stated that they cannot induce girls to apply for ESB positions even though they are very well paid and have the opportunity to reach the top level. For example, there are 1,037 male electricians and only six female electricians. The ratio is somewhat better at apprentice level with 15 women and 184 men but there is still much work to be done.
I welcome the establishment of the proposed National Training and Certification Board. I look forward to graduates coming out with an enhanced qualification which will enable them to ply their wares on world markets and receive recognition, apart from what it will do for our economy.
I have my doubts about this new apprenticeship scheme. I would have preferred to allow the two pilot projects to continue and be evaluated. However, as the Bill had such a tortuous passage to its present stage, I suppose we could not wait any longer. We await the Committee Stage debate when I hope we will have more input.