Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Questions (3)

Thomas Byrne


3. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the actions he will take in 2019 to address the low take-up of apprenticeships by women; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20076/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Education)

Cad iad na gníomhaíochtaí atá á ndéanamh ag an Aire chun níos mó ban a mhealladh chun a bheith ina bprintísigh?

The question is about the actions the Minister will take to encourage more women to take up apprenticeships. We have an incredibly low rate of approximately 5% of female participation in apprenticeships. The reason is that traditional craft apprenticeships were male dominated but that is not a valid excuse because Britain does not have the same problem due to the wider range of apprenticeships, which we do not have in this country. That is the reason so few females are taking up this particular educational route.

I am aware that the Deputy has an interest in apprenticeships as he has asked a number of questions on it. Currently, there are 367 female apprentices registered, more than double the 2017 figure of 151 and a substantial increase on the 2016 figure of 60. I accept that is not enough but I have made a big effort since I came to this position to at least double the number of apprentices that we have today. The number of women employed in craft apprenticeships is low, reflecting the traditional low levels of overall female employment in the craft sectors. To address that, SOLAS offers a bursary to employers in those trades to encourage them to employ female apprentices.

In recent years, there has been a welcome increase in the number of women participating in apprenticeships overall, mainly because of the expansion of apprenticeship into new areas. Many of the new programmes are in occupations that have greater gender balance in the workplace, such as financial services and auctioneering. While the increase in the number of female apprentices is welcome, it is also important to address issues influencing the low level of recruitment of women in the craft sectors. SOLAS has completed a review on the pathways to participation in apprenticeship for underrepresented groups, including women. Areas highlighted for action include setting targets for female participation and considering extending the bursary to other apprenticeships. The bursary offers approximately €2,660 to an eligible employer to encourage him or her to employ female apprentices. We are considering extending the bursary.

Women feature prominently in all aspects of the Generation Apprenticeship campaign, which was launched in 2017 by SOLAS on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, radio and television to encourage women to take up apprenticeship. However, it would be untruthful to state that everything is fine with female apprentices. Much more needs to be done.

This is the biggest gender imbalance in the entire State, other than the Catholic priesthood. It is incredible that only 5% of apprentices are women.

A range of issues arise regarding the low take-up of apprenticeships. One is snobbery. We are all encouraging people to take up apprenticeships. Professor Kathleen Lynch spoke well at the ASTI conference. She said she would not encourage people to do apprenticeships until all of the professional middle classes have their own children do apprenticeships. That is the message we need to get out; namely, that they are of equivalent value to degrees. When people understand that, they will do them.

The issue up to now is that we have only catered for half of the population. The range and depth of apprenticeships on offer have traditionally been male dominated. There are no barriers to prevent women taking up apprenticeships, but the career choices are gender specific and they need to be broadened. Much more action is required in that regard to make sure that women take up apprenticeships, take pressure off the university system and show that it is a valid and equivalent way of educating oneself to any level one wants.

The Deputy's comments are important. Women are strongly represented in apprenticeships in the financial sector where they number approximately 46% of participants and 60% of accounting technicians are women. Progress has been made since 2016. We will announce another 16 to 19 new apprenticeships between this year and 2020. That will make it easier for women to participate in apprenticeships.

We have undertaken a comprehensive campaign. We are working with SOLAS and other agencies to attract women into apprenticeships. We offer a reasonable bursary to employers, which works out at approximately €96 a week for 26 weeks, who take on apprentices. We are running an extensive campaign on social media, in the press, and on radio and on television to encourage women to take up apprenticeships. In recent years, the rate of female participation in apprenticeships is almost 100%. I am confident that with the help of SOLAS, the bursary and working with employers we will dramatically increase women's participation in apprenticeships in the coming years.

There are areas where the Department has taken action regarding the participation of women in apprenticeships. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, there has been some action, although the effect of it remains to be seen in the higher education sector. Within the higher education sector we have the international programme and awards under the Athena SWAN initiative. The universities and institutes of higher education are doing fantastic work to promote gender equality and opportunity but it does not appear that the same is being done for apprenticeships. I do not know if there is an international standard in apprenticeships as there is in higher education, but perhaps that is the reason the pressure is on there. We need to put the pressure on ourselves and the Minister of State must put pressure on himself to ensure that we change the situation because it is not sustainable for civic society to have 95% of participants who are male and no realistic prospect of any substantial increase in the level of participation by women in the coming years. The rate will probably change slightly but we need much more dramatic action.

I have spoken to the Apprenticeship Council on a number of occasions about diversity in apprenticeships and in the take-up of apprenticeships as well as the expansion of the apprenticeship system into a range of new sectors of the economy. Previously, we had 60 females in apprenticeships and there has been almost a 200% increase in the meantime. I agree with the Deputy that the current level is not sufficient but between the bursary, the advertising campaign and talking to companies that take on apprentices, I am confident that the situation will have improved in two years. I would like to set a target of 600, which would be a fantastic increase on 60, and I believe it is possible to achieve it.