New Apprenticeships Strategy

The new Northern Ireland strategy on apprenticeships entitled ‘Securing our Success’, which was launched last week, will radically transform our skills landscape and ensure our economy has the skills needed to grow and compete globally.

Skills are the key driver of positive economic change, and are also a powerful tool to promote individual opportunity and to achieve greater social inclusion. Apprenticeships benefit employers of all sizes, including small and micro businesses which form the vast majority of our economy. A key component of the new model will be that apprenticeships are designed to engage with these businesses, by responding directly to their needs in terms of ease of access, relevant training, incentives and support.

They will also be aligned to the needs of larger employers, including those who invest in Northern Ireland from overseas, reinforcing the gains that the region has already made in attracting foreign direct investment.

Across much of the developed world, there has been a renewed focus on apprenticeships as a mechanism to improve and encourage skills development, and innovation. Well-developed apprenticeship systems in exemplar countries such as Australia and Germany have been found to secure benefits to the local economy, through net returns on public investment in apprenticeships of between £17,000 and £35,000 per apprentice.

For apprentices, the new system will provide them with the skills that are wanted by employers and relevant to the local economy, equipping them with enhanced prospects of sustained employment and increased earnings potential. A new central service will assist the creation of increased apprenticeships, a strategic advisory forum and a series of sectoral partnerships will facilitate stakeholder engagement, and a revised careers system will promote new opportunities. These mechanisms are all firsts for Northern Ireland and their implementation will ensure a high quality skills and learning pathway that will rival the world’s best. The new model puts employers in the driving seat. The central service will support businesses, particularly SMEs and participants, and will include an online portal for the advertising and application of apprenticeship opportunities. While the introduction of a skills barometer will support the better matching of apprenticeship supply and demand by providing a clear indication of current, emerging and long-term skills shortages.

This new system will only be successful with a significant increase in the number of employers offering apprenticeship opportunities. The new strategic advisory forum and sectoral partnerships will be established to place employers in the lead role in ensuring the provision and content of apprenticeships meets their needs.

The demand for skills at levels 3 to 8 (A-level to doctorate) is set to increase significantly. Apprenticeships will play a major role in meeting this demand and will now commence at level 3 upwards, offering progression into further and higher education and mobility across the wider economy. The apprenticeship will be held in equally high esteem to higher education and will provide a direct route into a range of occupations and sectors previously only accessible through traditional higher education pathways.

For those who already hold level 3 qualifications, apprenticeships will be available in parallel to further and higher education at levels 4-6 (sub-degree and degree levels). For certain occupations there will be opportunities to undertake an apprenticeship at levels 7 and 8 (masters and doctorate). I want apprenticeships to have the same parity of esteem as other educational pathways. The Apprenticeship Strategy is driven by strategic partnership, puts employers at its very heart, better matches supply with demand and affords opportunities in a much wider range of occupations. I believe it will transform the concept of apprenticeships locally to capture the opportunities of the modern, knowledge-based economy.