Apprenticeship Model Reform: Discussion

I remind members to please ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment even on silent. The minutes of the meeting of 20 April 2021 have been circulated. Are they agreed? Agreed. Apologies have been noted and Tara, our clerk, is absent today. We wish her a speedy recovery.

From SOLAS, I welcome Mr. Andrew Brownlee, CEO and Ms. Mary-Liz Trant, executive director of delivery, and from Skillnet Ireland, Mr. Paul Cleary, CEO and Ms Tracey Donnery, executive director of policy and communications. They are here to brief the committee on reform of the apprenticeship model, specifically, how to rebrand it as a viable career option equivalent to higher education qualifications; restructure non-traditional apprenticeships; encourage more female apprentices; and, provide requisite apprenticeship training to ensure a skilled workforce for a just transition to a green economy.

I will invite Mr. Brownlee and then Mr. Healy to make a brief opening statement which will be followed by questions from committee members, each of whom has a six minute slot for questions and responses. The committee will publish the opening statements on its website following the meeting. Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses of the Oireachtas or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. As the witnesses are giving evidence remotely from a place outside the parliamentary precincts, and as such, may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does, they have already been advised that they may think it appropriate to take legal advice on the matter. They are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make them identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. Therefore if their statements are potentially defamatory to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed by me to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. I now ask Mr. Brownlee to begin; he and Mr. Healy have five minutes each.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

On behalf of SOLAS, I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak with members today and discuss the reform of the apprenticeship model. SOLAS has responsibility for funding, planning and co-ordinating further education and training in Ireland and is the statutory authority for apprenticeships. This means we have statutory responsibility for approving new areas of industrial activity for apprenticeship, approving employers, maintaining a register of apprentices, and making statutory rules for the conduct of apprentices.

SOLAS also has a role as the co-ordinating provider for craft apprenticeships.

While training is provided by a network of education and training boards, ETBs, institutes of technology, ITs, and technological universities, TUs, SOLAS remains responsible for developing and setting curricula, scheduling off-the-job training across the provider network, setting assessments and overall quality assurance of provision.

The apprenticeship system is underpinned by a strong partnership approach, with SOLAS playing a central role in its development and management alongside the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, education and training providers, employers and social partners. It is crucial in delivering the right and latest skills for employers and delivers a significant and positive impact on society and the economy.

At the start of this year, the apprenticeship population reached 20,000 for the first time. The female apprentice population has also grown substantially in recent years and now stands at 1,100, building on major efforts to increase participation and offer more diverse opportunities to enter an apprenticeship, although much more needs to be done to address barriers to entry. This was thanks to the opening up of apprenticeship following the publication of the most recent apprenticeship action plan. There are now 60 apprenticeship programmes to choose from, ranging from level 5 to level 10 on the national framework, serving industries as diverse as biopharma, ICT, recruitment, financial services, retail, hospitality, engineering and construction.

We have seen apprenticeship develop significantly as a viable career option for a much wider base of people. The Generation Apprenticeship campaign targets employers, parents, teachers, guidance counsellors and potential apprentices of all ages and backgrounds. We are also exploring how further education and training and apprenticeship options could be set out alongside higher education choices as part of the CAO decision-making process, which could be a real game changer in raising awareness of these great pathways that are available to everyone.

Over the past three years, important steps have been taken to ensure that apprenticeship is promoting and supporting green skills, with content developed and integrated into a number of core apprenticeship programmes. Centres of excellence in nearly-zero energy building, NZEB, are now established in the south east and midlands, with three further regional centres of excellence in development. New apprenticeships in the areas of arboriculture, geo-drilling, scaffolding, roofing and cladding have green skills technology and knowledge as components of the curriculum and approach. The Generation Apprenticeship schools competition has also had sustainability as its core theme over the last three years.

We believe the work of SOLAS and our partners has helped to support a world-class and rapidly expanding apprenticeship system, with the quality of our apprentices acknowledged on the global stage in Worldskills competitions. It provides an excellent foundation from which to further grow and diversify that system.

The new apprenticeship action plan, published last week, sets out an exciting new agenda for the development of the system over the next five years. It targets an increase in registrations to 10,000 per annum and aims to create a single integrated apprenticeship model. This includes further development and enhancement of the consortium-led approach, increased support for employers, including SMEs, support for targeted recruitment of under-represented groups and targets for the public sector to take on apprentices.

The plan also includes a commitment to establish a national apprenticeship office, to be jointly managed by SOLAS and the HEA. SOLAS will retain its statutory responsibilities with regard to apprenticeship but it is hoped that this joint office will provide apprenticeship with a distinct focus and identity, and reflect the fact that apprenticeships are now provided across both further and higher education. SOLAS looks forward to playing a lead role in this office and in the continuing management, development and oversight of apprenticeship in Ireland.

SOLAS will retain responsibility as co-ordinating provider for craft apprenticeships, although there is a commitment to move this provision to a devolved model of delivery over the lifetime of the plan. This will involve education and training providers taking on more of a lead role in this regard, building on their expertise in developing curricula, setting assessments and quality assuring provision. A migration plan will be developed in close partnership with all our key stakeholders involved in this process including industry, unions and the providers themselves.

While there is an exciting future for apprenticeship, of course, we must acknowledge the significant damage that Covid-19 has caused to provision over the last year. Our training centres and institutions, which provide off-the-job training, have been closed or operating at severely reduced capacity for nine of the past 12 months. The practical focus of apprenticeship means that most of this training has to take place on site and the restrictions have caused significant waiting lists to develop. The problems have also acted as a spur for innovation, however. We have seen apprenticeship training move online for the first time ever with theory elements of programmes delivered remotely. We have worked with providers and unions to phase back essential on-site provision via safe, socially distanced approaches.

Addressing the backlog will be a significant challenge but the recent announcements of €20 million in capital funding to expand capacity, the use of online and competency assessments to speed up the apprentice journey through training and working with providers and unions to agree flexible and overtime arrangements to facilitate provision outside of traditional training periods will all help to start to make inroads in the next few months.

I hope this provides a brief overview of the reform of the apprenticeship model and the current and evolving role that SOLAS plays in managing and developing the system. I thank the committee for its time and I look forward to further discussion on this matter.

I call Mr. Healy to give his opening statement.

Mr. Paul Healy

Chairman, committee members and colleagues, we are mindful that we speak to everyone today in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which, as we know, is having a profound global impact on societies, economies, workers and the ways in which businesses operate. Certain sectors of our economy, particularly those providing customer-facing services, remain under immense strain and will not offer their pre-Covid-19 employment levels for some time to come, giving rise to job displacement, skills mismatches and exceptionally high unemployment levels, particularly among our younger people.

As members will be aware, significant challenges remain for businesses as they adapt their models to provide a safe environment for employees and customers. Workers, too, are learning how to complete tasks remotely, enabled by digital communication tools, yet many activities and functions do not lend themselves to distance working. In the context of the dramatic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our labour market, the work of agencies such as Skillnet Ireland and SOLAS in upskilling those in employment has never been more important and will be a driving force as we enter a period of significant disruption that will require all of us to adapt and learn new skills.

Skillnet Ireland was set up by Government in 1999 to help meet these challenges. We were given a specific mandate to work directly with employers to develop the skills of those already in employment, and in doing so, contribute to the overall competitiveness of Ireland’s enterprise sector. I will note to the committee at this point that our mandate is distinct from that of apprenticeship and we do not have a formal role in the delivery of apprenticeship schemes.

Returning to in-employment upskilling, which is, yet again, the focus of our work, Skillnet Ireland uses a highly specialised approach, working directly alongside Ireland’s main industry groups, sectoral associations, industry clusters and chambers of commerce. Each of these groups operates and promotes its own distinctive Skillnet network. There are 73 Skillnet networks it total, covering every sector and every region in Ireland. Working with our partners, we identified the major trends shaping their sectors or region, for example, new digital skills, management skills, the impact of climate action, Brexit and Covid-19, but also how we can help jobseekers. This approach gives us direct access to thousands of companies and workers every year. In 2021, Skillnet Ireland will support 19,000 businesses nationwide, which I will stress are primarily small firms and microbusinesses, upskilling 70,000 workers and facilitating over 6,000 training programmes.

Our approach is very agile and responsive to the needs of employers. We also contribute, however, to substantial actions in many of the labour market and enterprise priorities set out in Government in policies and strategies. We played a key role in preparing Irish businesses for new realities posed by Brexit, for example, including rapidly upskilling more than 3,000 workers on new customs procedures through our clear customs scheme.

We have also been highly proactive in helping the business sector operate safely during this pandemic through our rebound scheme, which has supported more than 3,500 SMEs to date, limiting the spread of infection in industries spanning childcare, healthcare, manufacturing, hair and beauty, the creative sector, retail and hospitality.

Central Statistics Office, CSO, data from March tells us that in excess of 440,000 people are currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. We must not allow a long-term unemployment legacy to arise from this pandemic. With the support of our department, Skillnet Ireland has been on the ground since July of last year helping those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic to find new employment opportunities.

Our Skills Connect scheme operates on the basis of cross-sector employability. By that I mean we help people move from sectors worst affected by the crisis to new jobs in growth sectors such as technology, healthcare, food production and in the green economy. Some 1,200 companies are supporting these Skills Connect schemes by hosting work placements for jobseekers, which we then combine with upskilling courses and other career supports. We have seen very strong employment outcomes to date through Skills Connect, with some programmes achieving an 80% conversion rate to employment.

Demand is strong, and we expect to support more than 8,000 jobseekers through Skills Connect this year.

I will now turn to climate change, the most pressing issue of our time, and the implications for businesses and workers as Ireland transitions to a low carbon and environmentally sustainable economy. This month, we launched our climate ready initiative, which will equip business with the skills to manage climate action but also to thrive in the green economy. In 2021, the initiative will see us support more than 1,100 companies and 3,000 workers in areas including sustainable business practices, skills for the renewables sector, clean water and sustainable finance. At a minimum, we will invest €10 million in green skills through the climate ready initiative over the coming four years.

Skillnet Ireland is funded through the national training fund. Our 2021 allocation is €41 million, representing approximately 5% of the fund in a given year. However, it is important to stress to the committee that Skillnet Ireland operates on a cost sharing basis with employers, where our grants are combined with investment from businesses. In 2019, employers made a total additional contribution of €22 million to Skillnet Ireland training programmes. This represents a highly efficient use of public moneys and an effective vehicle for State investment in the skills of our workers. To meet an ever-increasing demand for our services, with the assistance of our Department we are now pursuing a number of participation opportunities on EU programmes.

I would like to make a number of recommendations. In light of the challenges outlined, the Government should maintain a rigorous focus on developing the skills of those already in employment. It should implement in full the recommendations arising from the independent evaluation of the national training fund undertaken by Indecon, including greater priority being placed on supporting in employment training. It should also continue to expand demonstrably effective government and enterprise upskilling mechanisms, such as Skillnet Ireland, allowing us meet the serious demand we have, particularly from small firms that employ between 60% to 70% of our workforce.

I thank Mr. Healy and I call Deputy Ó Laoghaire. I remind witnesses that when the Chair asks them to cease speaking they should do so.

We have two speaking slots and I will take both as Deputy Conway-Walsh is unable to participate. My first series of questions will be those Deputy Conway-Walsh wanted to raise. I thank the witnesses for their statements. This is a crucial issue. My first questions are for SOLAS and Mr. Brownlee. As I understand it, in February 2021 almost 7,000 apprentices from five craft programmes were on waiting lists for off-the-job training. At that stage, 1,800 of them had been waiting for more than a year. This goes well above and beyond the Covid situation. What is the situation at present, two months later? Given that 1,800 people had been waiting for more than a year what are the non-Covid related causes of delay? Why were there delays prior to Covid in the first place? How will we clear the backlog and when can we expect it to be cleared?

My next question relates to the overall approach. We welcome talk of a unified approach but there are some misgivings about the consortia-led model. Some of the trade unions, including Connect, have been raising concerns that it is a move away from what has been a fairly successful model for craft apprenticeships under SOLAS.

The level of take-up under the consortia-led model has not been anything like what it was under the former model. This led to some of the targets being missed. Is it accurate to say that overall the approach is to move craft apprenticeships to this consortia-led model? Will SOLAS no longer be the co-ordinating provider for craft apprenticeships once the migration is complete? There are concerns. We have a world-class apprenticeship model for training tradespeople and there are concerns that risks are being taken in this regard.

It has been said that the apprenticeship population is reaching 20,000. My understanding of figures released by the Department is that there was an apprenticeship population of 28,500 in 2007 before many of these new apprenticeships were ever envisaged. The 10,000 additional annual registrations would give us a population of 31,000 to 33,000 apprentices. Proportionately, this leaves us a long way short of some of the more successful countries. Given the importance and emphasis being placed on this and on expanding areas linked to the green economy and construction, is it ambitious enough?

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

I thank the Deputy. I will try to take the points in turn. The Deputy is absolutely right that waiting lists are a significant worry and concern for SOLAS. As I mentioned in my opening statement, training centres and institutions provide the off-the-job training and they have been effectively closed for nine of the past 12 months. My understanding is that at the end of March we had more than 4,000 people waiting to get onto phase 2 training, which is the start of the pipeline. They are waiting to go into training provided by education and training boards. At the end of March, the number for phase 4 was just under 2,000 and for phase 6 it was 1,500. It is a significant problem. We know how urgent an issue it is. We know how important it is for apprentices and employers. We are absolutely committed to getting apprentices back into the training they need and deserve as soon as possible.

The Deputy is right that this was an emerging problem before Covid. At that point, we had approximately 1,000 people waiting to get into phase 2 training, which is the first step in the pipeline. The reason for this was pretty simple. The number of craft apprentices had been expanding rapidly in recent years and there was a capacity issue regarding ability to keep up. The issue now is that the waiting lists are four times that level. It is very much a Covid-driven problem but I accept there was an emerging problem before Covid happened. There is definitely a clear action plan in place to address it. We are going to expand capacity with the help of the Department. A capital investment of €20 million will be made in further education and training and higher education. This will target in particular the areas of greatest strain, which are plumbing and electrical. The good news is that we have apprentices back on site thanks to great work with the TUI, SIPTU, education and training boards, institutes of technology and technological universities. We have had to do this in a safe and socially distanced way so there are capacity constraints. They are finally back on site and this will help us address the throughput.

We continue to deliver online the components that we can as part of the training package because this can speed up the apprenticeship journey. We are also looking at using competency assessments to see whether we can progress the apprentices. We are working with the unions to see what flexibility and overtime arrangements can be put in place to deliver apprenticeships outside of the traditional training periods because this will be essential to move things forward. This is the position on waiting lists.

The unified model of craft apprenticeships is very much part of the new action plan. The Deputy is right that a plan is set out whereby SOLAS would effectively migrate out of the co-ordinating provider role for craft apprenticeships over the five-year lifetime of the plan. The thinking behind this plan is that there has always been a bit of uneasiness between the roles in terms of management and oversight of the system and being a provider of education and training within the system. There is a bit of a conflict about which we have always been concerned. Another issue we need to take account of is that we have education and training providers, including education and training boards, institutes of technology and technological universities, with their own very well established quality assurance arrangements. In a way, they should be very well placed to help reform-----

I ask Mr. Brownlee to provide to the clerk any further information on Deputy Ó Laoghaire's questions.

My apologies to our witnesses, but I am on my phone. Unfortunately, if I have to take a call, the connection will be lost. I hope that does not happen but I cannot prevent it.

I thank the witnesses for their opening statements. This is a really exciting area on which the committee has the privilege of working with the organisations represented. The area on which I would like to focus is twofold and has been touched upon by the witnesses in their opening statements. The first relates to the opportunities in terms of climate action and reskilling and the second concerns one of the unfortunate consequences of Covid-19, namely, high unemployment in the younger age groups in particular, which has been mentioned by both witnesses. My focus will be primarily on the potential both organisations will bring to leaving certificate reform and how rebranding apprenticeships and on-the-job training can become a pathway to career progression for those who might not ordinarily focus on academic performance or the CAO system.

There are some identifiable constraints within the existing arrangement. What work have the organisations represented, particularly SOLAS, put into evaluating how the process could be streamlined to ensure the apprenticeship programme that is being rolled out by the Minister, Deputy Harris, is a success?

My second question concerns what I would regard as a relatively small programme. The plan to increase numbers by 10,000 over four years is, of course, welcome, but is there a constraint to making it a much larger programme or is it simply demand that is responsible for this? Please forgive my ignorance if that sounds like a simplistic question.

On the issue of on-the-job training, I am encouraged to hear some of the numbers provided by the witnesses. It is unusual for a group to come before the committee and set out conclusions and recommendations. It is most welcome and I thank the witnesses for that. My question relates to the identification of areas where Skillnet Ireland can step in and provide support to companies that are looking to diversify and provide more sustainable work for their employees and what steps Skillnet Ireland can take in that regard. Perhaps Mr. Brownlee can respond initially.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

On those points around making apprenticeship a more viable career option and looking at the importance and the role of the leaving certificate in that regard, there are a few things to say. First, we have been focusing a lot on the Generation Apprenticeship campaign to raise awareness in schools of potential apprenticeship pathways. We have been working with guidance counsellors, the National Parents Council Post Primary and the TUI to get the information out there. However, clearly that is only part of the issue. We have a system here where the focus of all school leavers' decisions on where to go next is around the CAO. That lends itself to a situation where two thirds of school leavers go directly into higher education. Indeed, there are even schools where 100% of school leavers go directly into higher education. I believe there must be people in that cohort who are better suited to an apprenticeship or to a further education and training, FET, course, even it is part of a pathway to then go into higher education.

We are doing a few things in this area. We are working with the CAO, the education and training boards, ETBs, and Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, to look at how we can find a way to put FET and apprenticeship options on the table at the same time as the higher education choices at that decision point when young people are talking to their families, teachers and career guidance counsellors about what to do next. That is one part of it. The other part, to which the Deputy has alluded, is around the leaving certificate. A review of the senior cycle is currently being undertaken. It is most important that that review looks at how we can embed vocational options and pathways within the senior cycle so that people can get a taster for careers in engineering, STEM, nursing and a whole range of different vocations, and can be encouraged to move into further education and training and apprenticeship. That is very important.

The Deputy mentioned the constraints on the scale and ambition of the programme. I do not think there are such constraints, but I think you need to take apprenticeship as being part of an overall system. There is massive potential for much more of role for further education and training and for higher education to work alongside those two offerings to give us a fit-for-purpose system which can meet the needs of the future world of work and society.

Mr. Paul Healy

In respect of the Deputy's question about helping business to diversify and become sustainable, it speaks to a broader question around our ability as a country to compete on the basis of talent, which is something we have been very successful at doing. Having a high-skilled and agile workforce is a core part of our proposition in this country and how we win investment. However, that is, of course, under immense strain all the time from factors such as technology in particular and how it is reshaping the workforce and skills.

In many ways, there is a twofold challenge that Skillnet Ireland is working on. The first is how to maintain a highly skilled workforce in the context of the changes occurring with the introduction of new technologies and so on. Our job really starts when people come out of the public education system, further and higher education and into work. That is when they are in our hands. We can boost their skills while they are in employment.

The second challenge that we are committed to is working with small firms, in particular. We will support somewhere in the order of 16,000 to 17,000 SMEs this year. It is important we help them because there are productivity challenges within our small firms of which the Deputy will be aware. For workers within small firms, it is important their skills are not left behind due to productivity or innovation issues within the firm in which they are working. It is a core part of the work we do in supporting hundreds of thousands of workers in small firms to remain competitive and have opportunities within their careers.

Therefore, the dual challenge we see is delivering a system that continues to produce high skills in respect of those in employment but which can also meet the skill challenges of those working in smaller firms.

Cuirim fáilte roimh ár n-aíonna. I wish to spend the few minutes I have asking the witnesses about three issues, namely, the shortage of skills we have to deal and contend with, the question of how we build the prestige around apprenticeship, and the issue of gender.

On the question of the shortage of skills, I am getting a picture that it is about trying to get people who are preparing for working life to think in terms of apprenticeship but also the vital work of providing ongoing training to people within the workforce to allow them to move or develop, as the case may be. Will the witnesses give us some numbers to demonstrate how acute the shortage of skills in our economy is and to give examples of areas?

The second issue is that it is clear that there is a need to build the prestige around the notion of apprenticeship and to get people thinking and to make it part of higher education so that people have pathways and so on. I am always very struck by the tradition of the journeymen apprentices that you would come across in other countries. At the start of their careers they have elaborate costumes and there is a great pride in their professions. Is this something that could be part of the necessary building up of the identity around apprenticeship for particular trades? Is it something from which we could learn?

The third question concerns gender. One of the aims of the reform of the apprenticeship model is to encourage more female apprentices. Certainly, there is a huge disparity in areas like construction. I believe that, currently, 5% of our apprentice cohort are female. Does that mean there are particular barriers that need to be addressed, or is the desire to encourage more females into apprenticeship in pursuit of something else? Is there another reason? Is it about filling gaps in the market, drawing people from one sector of the economy to work in the other, or is there another reason? The "why" is as important as the "what" in all of this.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

I thank the Senator. I will deal with the first of those points and then I will pass over to my colleague, Dr. Trant, who has been leading on a lot of work on how we build the prestige of apprenticeships and widen participation in them.

On the Senator's point regarding skills gaps and needs, we benefit from having the skills and labour market research unit based in SOLAS. I am happy to send on more detailed statistics. Principally, the highest level needs we are seeing at the moment are around tech and skills related to the construction sector. The Senator hit on the fundamental point. Our main concern with regard to skills is not the skills we need for today, but the skills we need for the future world of work. It is fair to say that the days of doing a block of education and training between the ages of 17 and 21, and that serving people for the rest of their careers and their lives, are gone. We need a system that allows people to upskill and reskill continually throughout their careers and their lifetimes. We put a lot of focus into the workforce upskilling agenda through a programme called Skills to Advance. The principal and initial target of that programme are the 900,000 people in the workforce, many of them older workers, who do not have the equivalent of junior or leaving certificate qualifications. It is a really hard group to reach. There is a role for further education and training, FET, at local level, working with employers to upskill these people so that their jobs remain sustainable and they can adapt to new technology.

I am sure Mr. Healy will elaborate further on his role and workforce upskilling as well. At this point, I will hand over to Dr. Trant to deal with the Senator's second and third points.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

I thank the Senator for the questions. On building the prestige of apprenticeship, as mentioned by my colleague, Mr. Brownlee, there has been a lot of work going on over the last five years on the Generation Apprenticeship approach. Thankfully, we have 60 programmes available now, up from 27 five years ago, which span all 21st century industries in Ireland. The feedback is that employers have a huge role in promoting the benefits of apprenticeship as a pipeline in terms of what they offer people coming into their companies and the pathways they make available. We have 25 ambassadors around the country who have been excellent in peer-to-peer engagement, but also in working with schools and engaging with teachers and students in schools about apprenticeship as a fantastic route to a career.

There are many countries in Europe where apprenticeship is well embedded and valued. Obviously, our systems will never be the same. We need a change in attitude to apprenticeship as a route of learning right up to PhD level. Apprenticeships are really valuable and they have a huge amount to offer. We need to get that on the table, and at the critical point when people are making decisions about what they want to do, how they propose to get started in their careers and how they propose to upskill. The initiative, The Right Course, a website that presents everything together, introduced this year by the Minister, Deputy Harris, has been very helpful. It presents, for the first time, all of the options to people and encourages conversations about what people want to do, be that an academic course or a course that is work based. We have work to do. The new action plan sets out a number of steps to be taken in that regard.

On gender, the Senator is correct that there is a lot of work still to be done and also a need for a better understanding of the barriers, which vary. The Senator mentioned construction. The number of women in construction is relatively low. There are employers who are doing a lot of really good work in this area and they have shown results. Employers who have focused on this and encouraged women to come into their industry have that benefit and they are building on it. There are many small companies that do not have the time and effort to do this. This is where some of the supports nationally will come into play. That will form part of the plan.

Approximately one year ago, Skillnet Ireland gave a talk to a girls school during which the question, "Why can't we access apprenticeships?", was asked. That group of girls thought that apprenticeship was not for them. This shows there is still a level of understanding needed in the system about apprenticeships and who can avail of them, including that they are open to people of all ages and backgrounds. The next five years will be really important in building on the work that has happened. We need to get the 5% we have already to a level that is much more representative of our population as a whole.

The next speaker is Senator Pauline O'Reilly, followed by Deputy Aodhán O Ríordáin.

I am substituting today for my colleague, Deputy Ó Cathasaigh. I thank the witnesses for coming to meet us again to discuss this important issue that has been forgotten for a long time, although I know significant work has been done in the area over the last few years.

A couple of issues come to mind. I know that a lot of engagement is happening in secondary schools, but to what extent is our secondary school system designed in such a way that the natural route is to go into an academic third level course? In terms of the subjects taught in secondary school in respect of the leaving certificate, our vision of what education means needs to change for us to see apprenticeships as the natural progression rather than pointing to them as another little thing that students can do, which is, perhaps, what it sounds like to young people. They do not have the confidence in the practical experience that is required in an apprenticeship. I believe apprenticeships and other routes need to be wrapped together. We need a reform of second and third level so that further and higher education can come together, rather than us trying to advertise something that is not easily understood. I would welcome the witnesses' thoughts on that.

On gender, which was raised by Senator Mullen as well, it is fantastic to see that real increase, but it is coming from a really low base. As I understand it from the figures provided, it is 1,000 women out of a population of 20,000. Females in politics know it is very difficult to put themselves into an area where everyone already in it is male. Not everyone, but almost everyone, does not see themselves doing that. Are there female mentors available who could be encouraged to take that lead and do something similar to Women for Election? In regard to politics, it is often said that women have to be asked four times to go into politics whereas men put themselves forward. This is because women do not see themselves in that area. A lot more work is probably needed by all of us in that regard. The witnesses might also offer their thoughts on that issue.

I would like to raise one final issue. This is about what employers need as well as what people need to feel fulfilled. That requires a response from Government, including in terms of the programme for Government. I have a particular concern in regard to the 500,000 target provided for in the programme for Government in terms of retrofitting. This is but one example of commitments in regard to the green economy. Do the witnesses believe they are well placed to be able to respond to that need in terms of the apprenticeships currently in place and the people taking them up? What more needs to be done to ensure that we hit our targets of 51% reduction in emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050? The work done by Skillnet Ireland and SOLAS is critical to us hitting those targets.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

I thank the Senator. The first two points in regard to the school system and how to develop female ambassadors and mentors can be separated. We can be the agents for change in this area. My first point is that we have an excellent education system, one that is respected worldwide. Whatever we do, it is about building on that system. It is not about ripping it up and starting again.

I totally agree with the Senator. I remember a meeting of a previous incarnation of this committee at which a brilliant young female apprentice said that she was interested in vocational and technical subjects subject at age 12 or 13 when she went to secondary school. However, she went to an all-girl school and because there was no one there to teach those subjects, they were not available as options. There is a legacy problem in that many schools are designed to generate the academic CAO pipeline. One aspect of our strategy, which we are exploring with the NCCA, is whether we can use further education colleges to offer taster modules for programmes as part of senior cycle or transition year so that we can bring the capability into schools. A lot more people, particularly women, could be advised as to what options are available. That is important.

In terms of green skills, there is a great deal to do and there is much that we are already focusing on. We are developing and expanding a network of retrofitting and upskilling centres. There are two NZEB centres in place and three more are planned. We are updating apprenticeship curricula. Perhaps Dr. Trant can talk about that in more detail. We can provide more information after the meeting if the committee requires it.

The new FET strategy is trying to create a sense of a college of the future which deals with all of the points we have talked about, including a larger scale, a bigger identity within the community and region and bringing together what was traditionally further education and training activity. Being a green campus is a prerequisite for all of that development. Within the strategy, we have made a commitment that all FET provision will be used to develop knowledge of climate change and environmental issues. There was a follow up in the programme for Government we talked about, a green further education and skills development plan. There is real opportunity to embed that learning in every FET course so that we are effectively creating the agents of change and the new generation that will understand what needs to be done and help to drive us towards those targets. We are working with the ETBs on that at the moment. It is an exciting opportunity where no matter what further education course one does, there will be a sustainability component within it.

I thank Mr. Brownlee.

I welcome everybody. I can confirm that I am in Leinster House. Many issues have been touched on already and I want to give the witnesses a platform to expand on some of the points they want to make because due to the limited time available, committee members can speak for longer than the witnesses.

I want to focus on youth unemployment, an issue I raised with the Tánaiste in the Dáil last Thursday. The figure given was 59%, which has been challenged. Whatever the percentage is - it may not be 59% because of the nature of the pandemic - it is still high. The EU average is 17%. The UK figure is 14%. Our figure, while not the highest, is still remarkably high. As I often say, the economic model offered to young people before now involved a lot of insecure and low paid work. Some 23% of Irish workers are in low paid jobs. How can we tackle youth unemployment and ensure that we do not return to an economic model which is dependent on insecure, low-paid employment? That is for anybody to respond to.

Mr. Paul Healy

The Deputy would have seen that we made reference to youth unemployment in our opening statement. We want to avoid the legacy of long-term unemployment affecting our youth arising from this crisis. It brings into sharp focus the vulnerable nature of employment that predated the crisis to which the Deputy alluded. We see this as an opportunity to address this problem and invest in people's skills , particularly the service and customer-facing sectors, and to provide options and career paths for them through investment in upskilling and lifelong learning. In many ways, there is an opportunity in this crisis to help to tackle a problem that was a legacy issue before Covid ever arose.

I invite my colleague, Ms Donnery, to comment on some of the work we are doing to support jobseekers in particular, with a focus on moving people from the sectors most affected by the crisis, such as the services sector and so on, to growth sectors like technology, the green economy, private healthcare and others.

Ms Tracey Donnery

We launched a new programme, Skills Connect, last year. We are developing programmes with businesses whereby they identify areas of job growth, especially in the technology sector, the green economy, food and agriculture. Thirty four of our Skillnet networks are running programmes that provide people with job placements and career development in order that they can develop the confidence to return to employment or change career. The programmes also provide technical skills and qualifications.

A new programme, Future in Tech, comprising eight different pathways, including cybersecurity and many other areas in the technology space, enables people to develop pathways. They do not need to have prior experience in technology. People can develop their skills at entry level and then reach a point at which they can choose one of eight different pathways. We have found, for example, that people are moving from logistics and have an interest in technology. There is a lot of support and mentoring from businesses. We have 1,200 companies providing supports for individuals.

In the green space, the NZEB programme has been successful. Young people in particular have become involved. We have found that, like our main programme, Skillnet, the gender balance is 50-50. One of the reasons for this is because we showcase best practice and examples. It shows participants people who are like them doing the work. It is one way in which we try to support and attract as many women as men to these programmes.

We have found that the gender balance of 50-50 has followed through across the different programmes. A lot of that is down to showing people best practice examples, including videos and other things that will appeal to individuals so that they can see themselves in particular roles. As part of this, we have a great programme, Women ReBOOT. It supports women who are returning to the technology sector. For years it has had a skills gap, which continues to be a problem. It also has difficulty in retaining women and supporting and developing them further. The programme supports women who may have worked in the technology sector and left it for a number of years, often due to caring responsibilities. It aims to bring them back and support them in the sector. Critical to this is the support provided to help the person to have the confidence to return to work, as well as specialist training and qualifications in the latest technology and the support of other peers. I have spoken to a number of women involved who have told me that what attracted them the most was hearing from someone who has done it because they did not believe it was possible.

This involves the support of companies, from multinationals right down to small businesses, that are willing to mentor trainees, provide them with training placements and, ultimately, employ them. Over 80% of those in the Women ReBOOT or TechSTART programmes have been employed. The medtech sector is also engaging with women returners. One of the supports we provide is helping people to return to these sectors.

There is a wide range of different programmes. I have outlined a taste of some of them. The key issue is how we promote this system, make it appeal to people and provide a mix of peer support and technical skills. Often these programmes are between four and six months in length, with qualifications being recognised by the national framework of qualifications, as well as industry accreditation.

I thank Ms Donnery.

That is absolutely fantastic. I was delighted to see the launch of the apprenticeship programme over the past few weeks. The target was increased to up to 10,000 a year.

Mention has been made, including by Dr. Trant, of the broad range of apprenticeship programmes. There are 60 and this is to be expanded to include another 18. I really like the fact that the system is being opened to the public sector. I would like to see local authorities, in particular, benefiting because it will really have an impact in regional areas. There are so many skill sets in local authorities that we do not even know about, including in engineering, roads, communications, housing and planning.

I thank all the speakers. I will direct my first questions to Dr. Trant. On the apprenticeship programme, what is the process for a company to get registered? I have had many queries on this, which is brilliant. There were queries from various companies, including retailers and SMEs. Could I have a brief description of how a company gets registered? How long does it take in respect of retail? I looked up the details today and saw sales but I did not see a category for retail. What is the procedure for retail?

On ETBs and further education and training, there has been a lot of modernisation. I was familiar with Galway and Roscommon ETB as a board member. There has been a lot of modernisation to bring everything online. That is from the operations point of view. What supports are in place for the organisations to roll out SOLAS programmes and further education and training? It was stated there are three areas we need to look at. The Minister, Deputy Harris, launched this morning the regional workshops that will be targeting companies and telling them about additional incentives to take on apprentices. It is so hard for SMEs and micro-enterprises. How are they going to proceed? Where are they going to have the bandwidth? How can the apprenticeship office help them?

How is Dr. Trant engaging with career guidance teachers? How will they support parents?

I have a question for Ms Donnery on Skillnet. I thank her. It is great to hear about the supports she has in place for women, including through having ambassadors and role models. These are crucial, particularly when trying to get people involved in STEM. Reports were produced by Science Foundation Ireland several years ago and it was discovered that the most important aspect is to have a female role model, be it someone you know, such as a family member, or a friend of your parents, so you can see your path is feasible.

Could Ms Donnery state three things Skillnet Ireland will be doing to support different types of enterprises, listing one each for micro-enterprises, retail and hospitality? What is Skillnet Ireland going to do for SMEs and multinationals? How is it getting involved with the regional skills forum, particularly the West Regional Skills Forum? I thank all the delegates.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

I will address the questions in turn. For employers interested in getting registered, there is an online process. They can submit an expression of interest on www.apprenticeship.ie and this gets passed on. Contact is made with the relevant ETB in the region and there is follow-up and a visit. There is a bit of support regarding what the apprenticeship is and making sure the employer is prepared. The employer becomes registered in that way and approved to employ apprentices. It can be a quite quick process, especially if an employer is already familiar with the apprenticeship system. Generally, it just takes a short number of weeks. We now have over 7,000 employers using apprenticeship. This is almost double the number six or seven years ago, so it is growing.

We are working on the technology base. Covid has really emphasised the need to have accessible ways of using these processes and getting employers on board. Part of the work ahead will be to streamline those systems.

On the ETBs and the online aspect, we have had investment in technology-enhanced learning since 2018 and 2019. This was really fortunate because it meant ETBs were quite well prepared when Covid arrived and people needed to switch online. There has been a lot of investment in upskilling staff and many online courses and supports. We went fully online with www.apprenticeship.ie from January this year, and that all worked smoothly. Obviously, there were challenges with a practical course but it meant that apprentices remained engaged and were able to continue, and that they now have completed their training.

On engaging with career guidance teachers, we work very closely with the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. We go to every conference.

Are the 25 ambassadors listed on the website? How are they engaging with career guidance counsellors?

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

They are all within regions and working on particular apprenticeships. To some extent, it is with their networks. They do school visits and so on. Based on the briefing we have given them, they are very aware of the importance of career guidance counsellors in supporting and informing students.

That is crucial for parents. Reaching parents has to be a huge target. The career guidance teachers need to be supported. I thank Dr. Trant for her contribution. I ask Ms Donnery to respond if she has time.

Ms Tracey Donnery

Senator Dolan mentioned SMEs and multinationals. Skillnet Ireland provides opportunities for businesses to collaborate and determine their skills needs. Key to what we will be doing is ensuring all businesses will have the opportunity to develop the talent they need. One of the strengths of the model is that we enable smaller businesses to work alongside larger multinationals to develop the skills needed for the particular sector or region, including by horizon scanning and looking to see what is coming next. We ensure that the best practice of the larger companies, which can sometimes be more advanced, can be shared with the smaller companies.

The three things we will be doing with businesses include broadening the base of businesses we support. We already support all the larger companies and most mid-size companies but there are still plenty of smaller companies that we could support. We would be giving them opportunities to determine, using their own voice, what skills they need, particularly in the focus area of SME productivity. In this regard, there can be a very wide range of programmes, depending on the sector, be it aviation, nursing homes or manufacturing. It is also a matter of supporting the companies in developing the skills needed for digitalisation. I am referring to building digital skills, digital literacy and digital capacity, but also the capacity to understand digital models or changes to businesses and business models. In addition, we have recently launched our Climate Ready programme.

How is a micro-enterprise, a small retailer, going to be supported? It does not have time to organise getting this done. How does Skillnet Ireland engage with micro-enterprises?

Ms Tracey Donnery

Each of our 70 networks has a steering group of businesses representative of the given sector or region. There is also a team manager. Our manager acts as a HR manager, if you like, for the smaller businesses. Our manager goes in and speaks with the business owner or operations manager and finds out the company's development needs. Ultimately, the manager finds out their business needs and which of those require training. Skillnet can work and effectively act as a training manager for those concerned.

I must ask Ms Donnery to conclude. I will allow Senator Dolan back in towards the end, at which time Ms Donnery may continue to answer. I apologise but I have given the Senator plenty of flexibility.

The issue I want to raise is an issue primarily for Mr. Brownlee but if Mr. Healy and his team want to contribute also, that will be welcome. This is the second year in a row without a written junior certificate examination. Last year, there were difficulties certifying those who were leaving school after their junior certificate to ensure they could enter an apprenticeship. Ultimately, the Minister provided an interim letter of confirmation after some pressure from ourselves and others. I want to know whether this is being boxed off for this year. Can we ensure that there will be no repeat of the delays faced by those leaving school after the junior certificate and that they will be able to access apprenticeships swiftly and without any complications?

On the future of apprenticeships, a lot of work has gone into www.apprenticeship.ie but I hear complaints about it not being user-friendly.

The feedback is that apprenticeship.ie is not user-friendly and that there are some difficulties with it. Are there plans to revise or update the platform because that is something that I receive feedback on?

This is probably a peculiar point but it occurred to me as we are speaking here. I can think of instances where people I have known with smaller businesses would have provided an apprentice to somebody they knew who may have been struggling and not had a job for while and who probably might not have otherwise provided an apprenticeship to this person. This would have allowed that person to serve their time with them but they allowed that because of the circumstances that young person was in. There is obviously a logic to a unified approach and everyone having a fair crack of the whip but will there be a flexibility on the ground for circumstances such as that?

Similarly, are we taking enough cognisance of the fact that many people who would offer apprenticeships would run businesses that are quite small? Are we taking cognisance also of their ability to negotiate this new consortia-led model?

Finally, I raise the lack of painting apprenticeships in Cork, which Mr. Brownlee would be familiar with. The Rossa Avenue facilities are still idle. I know specialists in the field who have told me that Irish customers are looking to Britain to find skilled painters, particularly decorative painters, and this seems to be a waste of local talent. Is there any update on that?

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

The junior certificate issue of apprenticeships has been dealt with. As the Deputy said, in 2020 there was an agreement that a State certificate or letter would be supplied along with a skill report which would get a person over the previous criteria of having to have 5 Ds in one’s junior certificate to access an apprenticeship. It worked. I got statistics from the apprenticeship team this morning that 25% of our apprentices in 2020 came through that junior certificate route. It worked even if it took longer than we would have wanted to get the system in place. The same conditions apply this year, so I hope the Deputy will not see any of those same issues this year because there will be clarity that that is the approach from the start.

I will ask Dr. Trant speak to the Deputy about the apprenticeship.ie website because we launched that in the last few weeks. Hopefully, that will alleviate the issues that the Deputy found there in the past.

On the Deputy’s SME question, that is a very valid point. It is something that the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme for employers tried to deal with. It has given employers a €3,000 payment to take on a young person on an apprenticeship. I want to return to Deputy Ó Ríordáin’s question on youth training and upskilling because we have a great deal to say on that but I will do that later on.

The Deputy is correct in that there is a sense that if one is with the ESB, one gets the €3,000 incentive and if one is an SME, one gets the same incentive. The action plan identified the need for additional SME supports to be provided to try to persuade those businesses about which the Deputy talked to take a chance without too much of a financial hit and to take on that local person they may feel deserves a chance. That is definitely something that we need to focus on. It is a focus in the action plan.

On the question regarding painting and decorating, we followed up with Cork Education and Training Board which I believe was in contact with the Deputy. There is a workshop available and it is just a question of demand at present. The Deputy referred to some evidence of there being demand and of taking people from the UK at a system level but we do not see that demand. My understanding is that there is only one workshop offering a painting and decorating apprenticeship at the moment and that is in Ballyfermot. That is something we continue to monitor and if we can get evidence of that demand, that is certainly something we can look at resurrecting.

I will hand over to Dr. Trant to speak about the new website.

I wonder if Deputy Ó Laoghaire is still online. Evidently not. I ask Dr. Trant to continue and the Deputy can read the response in the Official Report.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

On the Deputy’s question and point on the website, as Mr. Brownlee mentioned, it was revamped and relaunched recently. We will be looking for feedback through a detailed survey of users. The anecdotal feedback is very positive so far but once it is up and running for a while, we will be receiving feedback. If there are any ongoing issues that the Deputy is aware of, we will be very happy to take that on board and build it into the ongoing work. We are looking at the updating of the website as phase 1 and there will be further phases. There is a great deal more technology and streamlined systems that we can build into the website and that is part the new action plan for the future. To answer the Deputy’s question directly as to whether the website is going to be revised and updated, we have done a fair amount of work on it and this will continue. I hope this will be of help to the Deputy.

I thank Dr. Trant very much for that response. I call Senator O’Loughlin if she is available. She is not. Is Senator Pauline O’Reilly available? Deputy Farrell will be invited back in towards the end. We will have additional slots then.

I thank the Chairman.

I call Senator Pauline O'Reilly again. She is not available. I call Deputy O'Callaghan.

I thank the Chairman and the witnesses for coming before the committee today. I will start by asking Mr. Healy about the extraordinary levels of youth unemployment at present. Obviously, it is contributed to significantly by Covid-19 but what role does he see the apprenticeship issue playing in trying to resolve youth unemployment so that we do not have a long-term problem in this country? As I am sure he will appreciate, the most destructive thing that can happen to any economy is that there are high levels of persistent youth unemployment. I would be interested in hearing his views on that and then perhaps Mr. Brownlee’s views on the same issue.

Mr. Paul Healy

I will ask Mr. Brownlee to go first on the specific question of youth unemployment and apprenticeships, if that is okay.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

I will pick up on Deputy Ó Ríordáin's question as well. Obviously, dealing with youth unemployment and providing young people with opportunities at top skills has been part of the DNA of further education and training for a long time. As we mentioned, we have the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme for employers, which is trying to persuade employers to take that chance and take on young people. There is also a whole range of programmes in further education and training, FET, that are specifically designed to help young people to upskill and to take them directly into jobs and employment. In Youthreach, we have specific skills training and a significant amount of post-leaving certificate, PLC, provision which has incredible success at taking people into really interesting jobs and careers, together with community training centre provision. The key for us is to mobilise that provision and ensure the capacity is there to deal with this immense demand that we have at present, which both Deputies have identified as being a real issue and concern. We are trying to ensure that the places are available.

There is also a cultural issue where there is a large number of young people who cannot walk into jobs, no matter how insecure they previously would have been, and have no access to any income-earning potential. They probably do not think of further education and training or even an apprenticeship as a viable option because there has been that predominance of higher education choices almost as part of the psyche. We need to focus on trying to persuade them that there are opportunities out there, even online opportunities through e-college. We could perhaps also look at the system of support that we give them. For example, SUSI support is available for all higher education and PLC provision but if one wants to do a traineeship at the same level, level 5 or level 6 as PLC, one does not have access to SUSI, instead one is asked to sign on for welfare support to take one through the course. That type of system creates a kind of divide and a perception that that type of upskilling and help is not for certain people but this is a key focus and an issue. We have put in place an initiative called Skills to Compete which is all about addressing those structural issues in the labour market as a result of Covid-19. This is a three-pronged initiative. One is about giving the person the employability skills that will help him or her to get a job.

Second, it is about giving people access to the digital skills they will need for any job in the future world of work. Third, it is about targeting skills in specific occupations. That might be technology, green skills, energy and opportunities like those. There is a whole range of responses and I am happy to follow up with a more detailed outline of what they are.

I thank Mr. Brownlee. Did Mr. Healy want to come in?

Mr. Paul Healy

I thank the Deputy. On his specific question about youth unemployment, we are dealing with that under three headings. The first of these is cross-sector employability, namely, helping people to achieve a movement, a career transition, from the affected sectors, particularly the customer-facing sector, into growth opportunities in technology and other parts of the economy. The second heading relates to how the work we do is very close to employment. We are working hand-in-hand with employers so we are seeing, almost in real time, the skills gaps, the jobs they are trying to fill and so on. We are helping to match those with suitable jobseekers we are upskilling. The last heading relates to work placement. It is not just an isolated training programme which might be taken online, this is fully integrated with work. The places we offer to jobseekers and to the very concerning numbers of youth unemployed come with a mandatory work placement, where they are being hosted among 1,200 businesses which are voluntarily supporting us. In respect of many of these schemes, particularly in technology, we are seeing a conversion rate to employment of 80% or more. Therefore it is about quick interventions, not letting the problem fester over time and not having a long-term youth unemployment legacy arising from this pandemic.

We, as Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, are policymakers. What can we do to try to direct more students toward the apprenticeship avenue and maybe give them an opportunity to recognise it is a more attractive avenue for them than, say, going down the CAO route, which is the more orthodox path presented to them?

Mr. Paul Healy

Colleagues from SOLAS may wish to reply to that.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

It is about supporting the kind of interventions we talked about today. It is about senior cycle reform so there are more vocational options and pathways available. It is about supporting the work we are doing to try to bring FET and apprenticeship options into that decision point at CAO time. It is about reform of further education, apprenticeships and higher education itself, making it more focused on providing people with the kind of lifelong learning and workforce upskilling opportunities that will facilitate the continual upskilling and reskilling that we need. It is about backing that green skills agenda as well because there is so much potential for that and it probably just needs a bit more investment in the development and establishment of the capability and infrastructure that will make it happen. Of course there is also investment in capacity and in capital infrastructure and in the staffing and resources that will allow us to expand capacity to the extent we need to in order to deal with the waiting list problem, but also to the extent that we need to meet our ambition in the national apprenticeship plan and our own FET strategy.

I thank Mr. Brownlee and Mr. O'Callaghan.

We will hear from Senator Flynn and then I will take a couple of additional people at the end.

I am not in Leinster House.

I thank the Senator, I will take the slot myself. In fairness to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, they have put apprenticeship programmes on the roadmap. It is greatly appreciated and is very much a priority within the new Department. Looking for more women to participate is very much welcome.

My question is for both organisations. I wish to concentrate on the hospitality sector, with which I have had a lot of meetings and interactions over the last while. Representatives have spoken about how a lot of their own staff will not be coming back and reskilling and retraining and everything like that and I am aware that both the Minister and Minister of State have mentioned this. I ask both organisations to outline what they are doing for the hospitality sector and maybe what additional resources or opportunities are there for the sector. Perhaps Mr. Brownlee will go first.

Mr. Paul Healy

Mr. Brownlee might start and then Ms Donnery might comment for our part.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

I thank the Chairman for raising a pertinent issue. The hospitality sector is of concern in a number of ways. There are a couple of really good apprenticeship programmes up and running for that sector. I might ask Dr. Trant to come in on those in a minute. We are doing a lot. We launched a workforce upskilling initiative for the hospitality sector, so while it is in this period of inactivity in which its businesses are constrained, we are rolling out, through Skills to Advance, a range of upskilling initiatives to develop its leadership and management capability. A major initiative to develop the sector's understanding of green skills and sustainability was launched in the last few weeks.

We are obviously providing them with access to e-college and a whole range of upskilling and reskilling opportunities. One of the sector's real concerns was on the affordability of having to subsidise the off-the-job training of its apprentices. That is something the new apprenticeship action plan is trying to address. It is saying it is going to address the lack of parity between employers who take on craft apprentices and those who take on apprentices under the newer programmes and give a grant in order that there is more support for employers and they are not taking as much of a financial hit. That could have a big impact on the hospitality sector. Dr. Trant may wish to come in on the apprenticeships in that space at the moment.

Dr. Mary-Liz Trant

As Mr. Brownlee mentioned, there are three apprenticeships in the area, namely, commis chef, chef de partie and sous chef. There were over 203 apprentices in training when the pandemic hit last year. Due to the fact that a lot of the employer's premises were not able to remain open and training centres and institutes of technology were shutting down as well, it was really challenging. The training providers have done a lot of work to move online and to keep the apprentices on board. By and large that has worked and helped. The real focus is to help those apprentices to complete and then, hopefully once the vaccine gets rolled out and the country opens back up again, there is going to be a huge amount of demand and new opportunities in the industry for those apprentices once again. There is no doubt it has been an industry really badly hit. There is an awareness in the industry of the long-term need for a pipeline, through apprenticeship, for example, and the importance of sticking with it. Recruitment is on hold for the moment in 2021 but that is unsurprising. However, we are hopeful that, in supporting the current crop of apprentices to get through, there will be new opportunities as things start to open up and the pipeline will get going again.

Ms Tracey Donnery

At Skillnet Ireland we have a lot of networks already operating in this space. For example we have a restaurant skillnet and this year we have launched a new hospitality skillnet with the Irish Hotels Federation because despite there being issues, a lot of companies are using this time to upskill their employees. As Dr. Trant said there, this relates both to developing the management skills but also to the skills of the staff. We also have a skillnet in the fitness and leisure sector, which is part of this wider sector. The key supports which we have found to be very beneficial to the sector this year include our mentors work programme. It is dedicated to supporting leaders, owners and SMEs in re-examining their business models, looking to shift business online, looking at either of the pillars of financing their business, their people, operational efficiencies or digitalisation. There has been a high take-up among businesses within that sector. We have also seen great collaboration from some in the sector, such as the Restaurant Association of Ireland and others, which are working together to develop programmes which will help the businesses be ready for reopening. Our ReBound programme was also very valuable and had great take-up, particularly with helping businesses be ready to ensure their staff would be safe when they had an opportunity to reopen last year.

We have a lot going on in that regard.

We also find that across all our regional networks, which are mixed sectoral networks, they are putting in place many supports to help the staff from the hospitality sector to develop their skills to allow them move to another sector while there are opportunities. Also, there are many women in this area, some of whom are part-time workers. They have been able to upskill and equip themselves to be ready to take on a job in a new area, for example, medical technology or technology. Luckily, all of those networks are still going strong and still finding great demand from the businesses to upskill their staff. We are providing them with supports to keep that going.

I thank Ms Donnery. I know from speaking to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, that there is an appetite for this within the Department. I would encourage both SOLAS and Skillnet Ireland to do all they can for this sector because it will be very important post-Covid in terms of economic recovery.

I have two further questions and I invite Mr. Healy and Mr. Brownlee to comment. Later this year the committee will examine the issue of reform of the leaving certificate. Do Mr. Healy and Mr. Brownlee have any thoughts on how more vocational options, including apprenticeships, for school leavers could be promoted and encouraged? It is an opportune time to examine reform of the leaving certificate because of Covid-19. The current leaving certificate system is outdated; I have been saying that on the public record in recent years. Whether we introduce continuous assessment or whatever we have to give every student every opportunity. Some people want to go to third level to do different courses but we have to look at the apprenticeships also, what those skills have to offer and how we could incorporate the leaving certificate into that. Mr. Healy might begin by making a brief comment followed by Mr. Brownlee because I do not want to be taking time from everybody else.

Mr. Paul Healy

I thank the Chairman. I will comment briefly but it is probably largely in Mr. Brownlee's domain. In the reform of the leaving certificate there may be an opportunity to integrate more subjects with the reality of work, for example, to help people in that transition into employment directly after their leaving certificate. What aspects of the leaving certificate could be moved from rote learning and expressing one's memory onto a page? What can be done within the curriculum? How can the curriculum be modified to make it a more pragmatic intervention in the life of a student, not just in terms of the academic process but in preparing them for a long life of work and moving into employment either directly after the leaving certificate or directly after further or higher education? I will hand over to Mr. Brownlee for the broader answer.

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

I thank Mr. Healy. I touched on some of this earlier but there are probably three fundamental aspects that I would like the committee to examine. The first is the embedding of vocational options as part of the senior cycle. As Mr. Healy mentioned, there is an opportunity now to do that. There is a system in Scotland where further education colleges deliver modules effectively as part of the leaving certificate or highers, as they are called in Scotland. There is real potential to look at a similar system to get those kind of vocational options and experiences on the table, particularly in schools that do not have the technical teaching capability to look at delivering them.

The second is around CAO reform. We need to find a way to put further education and apprenticeship options on the table at exactly the same time as higher education choices for our school leavers. That needs to be done either via the CAO system directly or a parallel system that sits alongside that. It is very important that we can reinforce that aim.

The third aspect is around the role of the transition year, TY. If we can embed taster modules and experiences as part of TY that give students a flavour for the many great apprenticeship and further education opportunities we will sow the seeds and then build on that through the other two interventions after that.

I thank Mr. Brownlee for that and Mr. Healy. There are additional slots and I will allow members to ask questions. I call Deputy Farrell. If other members want to come in I ask them to give a signal by raising their hands.

Can the Chairman hear and see me?

Yes, perfectly.

I cannot see anybody right now. I think we are still having Microsoft Teams issues. My question is a follow-up one for Mr. Brownlee. It was just a remark with regard to bringing the apprenticeship programme into the schools at a stage where decisions were being made by students in terms of their future. It might have been a turn of phrase. I would have thought that bringing it in before that would have been appropriate on entry into the senior cycle. Does Mr. Brownlee have a comment to make on that?

Other witnesses might wish to contribute on the point that the future of the leaving certificate, as raised by the Chairman, which is a matter for discussion at this committee, will involve new pathways to careers, as we mentioned earlier. If we are to provide the information to students within secondary schools we have to do it as early as possible so that in conjunction with reform of the CAO process and the leaving certificate it is seen as a real pathway. Do the witnesses have a comment to make on that?

Mr. Andrew Brownlee

I am sorry. I did not mean to imply that it should not be something we focus on before the leaving certificate time. Transition year is a very good opportunity to sow some of the seeds but we should be talking about using all the initiatives in recent years to build understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, even at primary school level as well as secondary level. As part of those conversations we should be telling students that there are many apprenticeships and FETAC courses they can pursue as part of that to that. It is to get people to start thinking at a much earlier stage that that might be for them. I totally agree with the Deputy. I was talking about the fact that when young people make their actual choice about what is next they do not even see those apprenticeship or further education opportunities when they are talking to their teachers, parents or guidance counsellors. If they do not have the options on the table, how can they persuade a bigger proportion to go for it? The Deputy is right. That will only work if we sow the seeds at an earlier stage to allow them make the decision.

I thank Mr. Brownlee. I figured it was just a turn of phrase but I appreciate that clarity.

As no other members are offering I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee today and sharing their insights and expert knowledge on a very important and topical issue. The discussion has been productive and informative. I have no doubt that we will bring back Skillnet Ireland and SOLAS when it comes to discussing reform of the leaving certificate because I know they will have something very important to say on that.

The meeting is adjourned until 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 May 2021, when we will have a public meeting.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.10 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 May 2021.