: The supported graduate apprenticeship scheme was an indigenous training programme for undergraduates in Bombardier Shorts. I have been advised by the company that the scheme ended in 1994.
In terms of publicly funded higher-level apprenticeships, my Department is working with a number of sector skills councils, leading companies and training suppliers to develop and pilot an apprenticeship programme at level 4, which is at sub-degree or higher national level, in the information and communication technology and engineering sectors. The aim of that pilot programme is to support the skill requirements of our leading-edge companies in Northern Ireland and to establish progression routes for apprentices that could lead to an honours degree. Preparatory work is well under way, and it is expected that recruitment to the pilot programme in both sectors will take place later this year.
: I thank the Minister for his reply. I declare an interest as an achiever from that scheme. What the Minister has outlined will lead to the skills gap being filled in high-tech industry companies, such as Bombardier, as there are major shortfalls in their recruitment areas, such as engineering and electronics. Will the Minister roll the programme out to companies other than just Bombardier?
: I thank the Member for his supplementary. There are two things to stress in response. First, this programme will be broader than just Bombardier. I pay tribute to Bombardier, because it is very proactive in its apprenticeship programme and works very closely with us on Apprenticeships Northern Ireland. However, this scheme will be much wider. We are piloting it in two areas, and, if successful, we hope to roll it out on a much wider basis.
We have a requirement for a much greater level of higher level qualifications in Northern Ireland. That was a very clear theme in the skills strategy that we launched last year. However, that does not always necessarily mean the classic degree route: there are other paths open to people that are of equal value. It is really the case that whatever fits best should be pursued.
: What steps is the Minister taking to inspire and enthuse our people at a much younger age about the opportunities and remuneration available from STEM subjects? I was very inspired by a recent visit to Bombardier, on which we were told how it had increased its uptake of female apprentices. Minister, what measures are you taking to encourage more females onto that career path?
: The Member raises a very valid point. It is important to highlight that we still have a long way to go. However, some very important steps are being taken. We have a STEM strategy, which is a cross-departmental strategy based on a review of STEM subjects and conducted by Joanne Stuart. Bombardier was represented on the group by Gavin Campbell. We are very keen to highlight the importance of people from a wide range of backgrounds and of both genders taking part in apprenticeships. Indeed, Stephanie Wilson, who was a production engineer from Bombardier, spoke at a recent event as a STEM ambassador. When I was on the Bombardier floor recently, I was pleased to see the beginnings of much greater diversity in that company’s apprentices. I know that that is also the case in many other companies across Northern Ireland.
: The Minister referred to a pilot scheme, which is very encouraging. However, does the Minister not agree that a more aggressive approach has to be taken to the development of such skills, particularly among graduates? At this point, we should be taking that approach rather than simply waiting on a pilot scheme to produce results.
: I thank the Member for his question and understand the sentiments behind it. In Northern Ireland, there is, on the one hand, a desire to be very radical and innovative within public policy but equally there is a very strong accountability culture and a desire to see things properly rolled out and assessed before even greater amounts of money are invested. I am not sure that this is something that affects my Department any more than others. The House has to grapple with the wider culture in public policy in Northern Ireland. I will, however, give the assurance that I will move aggressively to follow up on the results of any pilot. Those results will also be reinforced by work that I am doing with an ICT working group involving business leaders, the colleges and universities and other Departments to see how we can better cater for the ICT sector. My skills adviser, Bill McGinnis, is conducting a scoping exercise with engineering companies on their particular skills needs to see what actions we need to take. Apprenticeships are only one part of a much wider engagement in support of those sectors.