Oral Answers to Questions — Employment and Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP 2:00 pm, 9th February 2016

1. Mr Newton asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his assessment of the success of the employer-led apprenticeship programme compared to the programme-led apprenticeship scheme. (AQO 9580/11-16)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The new Northern Ireland apprenticeship strategy, Securing our Success, was published in June 2014, and the new youth training strategy, Generating our Success, was published in June 2015. Together, those strategies set out an ambitious programme of reform that has the potential to radically transform how professional and technical training is delivered.

My aim is to establish a world-class skills system that supports and meets the ambitions of our young people and provides Northern Ireland with a skills base capable of driving economic growth. Consistent with the best systems internationally, employers will be firmly in the lead of the reformed system. Through sector partnerships, they will work with curriculum experts to develop and agree the curriculum and content that will form the core of apprenticeships in each occupational area.

The new strategies are focused on raising quality, supporting a breadth of learning, underpinning progression and ensuring portability to deliver skills that will be recognised nationally and internationally as an exemplar. My Department is progressing with a number of projects that will allow the new system to be fully operational from September 2017.

Programme-led apprenticeships, which were introduced in 2009, were originally intended as a short-term contingency arrangement for apprentices who had been made unemployed as a result of the developing economic downturn. The aim was to provide participants with the knowledge, understanding and competence to work at a high level in their chosen occupation. Unfortunately, the downturn lasted much longer than was originally thought. The programme-led apprenticeship programme was successful in ensuring that young people continued to train at a time when there were no job opportunities. Fortunately, we are in a different place economically, and the new programme has been developed to support our economy and employers.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I thank the Minister for that very detailed answer. I acknowledge that he has recognised the potential of the employer-led scheme, which, I understand, results in 80%-plus of apprentices ending up in employment with their host company. Why are we not seeking to further expand the employer-led scheme? Employers recognise that they are meeting the needs of the industry, they have an input, and jobs are being offered to those who take part.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for his comments. I assure him that our ambitions in that respect have no limits whatsoever. We want to see as much training happening through the apprenticeship system as possible. In essence, any professional or technical area can be addressed through the apprenticeship approach.

As the Member will appreciate, an apprenticeship is a job: someone will be in employment and will be trained on and off the job. Employers are in the driving seat. They determine where apprentice opportunities will be created, because, in essence, they are creating jobs. In the past, apprenticeships were awarded as part of contracts to suppliers who then tried to create jobs in particular areas. That is not the most efficient way of engaging with the market, particularly in evolving high-growth areas.

I suggest to the Member that we have the precise mechanisms in place. Our challenge is to make sure that we implement the strategy and get as much buy-in from employers as possible.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer to date. Employer-led apprenticeships were discussed at the Committee over a lengthy period. I raised some concerns. Whilst it is a good scheme, quite a number of people who would fit in the NEETs strategy would find it difficult to take part in it. How do you ensure that it does not move on and that those people are not left behind? I think that those are the types of people that Robin might have been talking about also.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for his comments. It is important that we see our new apprenticeship system as part of a full spectrum of interventions. In addition to the new apprenticeship strategy, which covers level 3 through to level 8, we have the new youth training strategy at level 2. That is designed to address the needs of those young people who leave school, who perhaps do not yet have the qualifications to engage in the world of work, but who very clearly have that potential. Beyond that, we have to look at how we can assist those who are not eligible for the youth training scheme. That is why what we do with the NEETs strategy is so important, and that is supported by the European social fund at present.

In all those things, we have to recognise that we have to encourage people to progress and fulfil their potential, whatever that may be. We certainly have a challenge to ensure that we move as many people up the skills ladder as we possibly can. We know that, in the years to come, the profile of job opportunities will move more in the direction of intermediate and high-level skills and that opportunities for those with lower-level skills are set to diminish quite radically.

Photo of Adrian Cochrane-Watson Adrian Cochrane-Watson UUP

I thank the Minister for his answer to the initial question. Does he believe that, as changes to apprenticeships alter the image of apprenticeship opportunities, that will then engage parents in the belief that apprenticeships are a positive means of getting their sons and daughters into the job market?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I very much concur with what the Member is suggesting. It is important that we establish apprenticeships as a pathway with the same parity of esteem as the more traditional routes into college or university. Indeed, an apprenticeship will often be combined with college or university support, depending on the type of apprenticeship and the level at which it is offered. We should not see a hierarchy, whereby, for example, in the case of A levels, people who do not get into university then consider an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships have to be seen as being on a par. That is why we are developing a central service. We are trying to develop a portal that will market apprenticeship opportunities to young people. We are reforming the careers and guidance policy in Northern Ireland so as to ensure that we have a much more modern system, and one informed by where the opportunities lie in our economy.

We need to get the message out that people can often reach even greater heights, in society and where they are in the economy, through going down the apprenticeship route rather than the more traditional and familiar route. As the Member suggests, it is important that we convince parents of that change in approach. It is a much more lucrative approach, for the individual and for the economy as a whole.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

The Minister mentioned the new strategy for apprenticeships. What different outcomes can we expect from it?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for her question. It is very much about how we can support the economy of Northern Ireland. Apprenticeships are not simply there as an end in themselves. It is about providing a much more efficient and effective way of delivering outcomes. We know that employers have often expressed frustration at not getting the particular skills that they require. This is the most effective way of remedying that situation. We also know, from the perspective of young people, that it will be the most reliable means by which they can find and sustain employment.

From looking around the European Union, we see that the societies that invest the most in apprenticeships and vocational training are those that are the most prosperous and have the lowest levels of youth unemployment. There are some very clear lessons for us to learn about what we can aspire to.