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Apprentices need our support

Civil Engineering apprenticeships are not just transformative for apprentices. True, they offer people the life-changing opportunity to learn and earn and to take a first career step. But apprenticeships are more than that. They transform society by delivering the skilled workers who build our quality of life.

Richard kirk sept 2012 2

Richard kirk sept 2012 2

Richard Kirk

Northern Ireland, like the rest of the UK, is facing a serious skills shortage over the next decade. Though science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills generally are in demand, the Northern Ireland government-produced Skills Barometer shows that IT and civil engineering specifically will have the highest demand for workers. Furthermore, by 2021, Northern Ireland will have 10% less 18-year-olds to address that undersupply.

Our industry has known about the impending shortage for some time, but anxieties have been growing. In 2016, 86% of infrastructure providers cited their concerns that the skills shortage will hinder the UK’s ability to deliver infrastructure – that figure was 91% among digital providers.

We cannot wait for these problems to solve themselves. We must create opportunities now that will put the right people into the right jobs, and apprenticeships are the way forward. Here in Northern Ireland, we are in the second year of Work Plus, our civil engineering apprenticeship designed to help address the skills shortage.

Work Plus is a scheme created in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy, 31 employers and all six Northern Ireland FE colleges. The programme began in September 2016 with 17 apprentices, and is set to have an even bigger intake for this autumn.

It has already proven how beneficial apprenticeships are to the apprentices, employers and wider industry. Work Plus provides a starting salary of £10,000, no educational debt, a professional qualification at the end of two years and a first step into a career as a civil engineer. Employers benefit as well: they can recruit talented people of any age, oversee their development and secure their long-term commitment by instilling company values.

We are starting to see a shift in the public perception of apprenticeships, but much more needs to be done. Apprenticeships are still too often regarded as a backup plan, or less desirable than a university education. Other countries like Germany lead the way in vocational training and boast half the youth unemployment rate of Northern Ireland.

Apprenticeships have received more attention since the Apprenticeship Review in early 2014, and more recently through introduction of the levy in April this year. However, the Executive’s lack of clarity about its implementation in Northern Ireland has left many employers understandably frustrated. Indeed, the ICE has been among the many organisations calling for urgent action on the levy to help support the growth of apprenticeships.  

Though the uncertainty is disappointing, the eventual investment in skills the levy will bring is absolutely necessary. Employers cannot afford to not invest in the next generation of skilled workers, as they will be fighting to attract the best talent in an ever-shrinking pool of young people.

It’s up to us to change the thinking around apprenticeships – to vocally support them, invest in them, and deliver them to transform the lives of apprentices and our society.

  • Richard Kirk is ICE Northern Ireland’s regional director

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