Mr Robin Swann, the North Antrim Ulster Unionist Party Assembly Member and Chairman of the Stormont Committee for Employment and Learning has given his firm backing to the new apprenticeship scheme which he says “will greatly boost the jobs potential for people who take part in these schemes”.
Mr Swann, who is also North Antrim UUP Chairman and Party Chief Whip, make his remarks after Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry unveiled a package of apprenticeship schemes across Northern Ireland.
Mr Swann, who has been campaigning strongly for such a scheme, said: “I thank the Minister for his timely statement on tackling apprenticeships.
“It is timely when it is taken into consideration that the number of young people entering apprenticeships through ApprenticeshipsNI has fallen from 8,948 in 2010-11 to 6,345 in 2011-12; a drop of 30%.
“Will the Minister explain how he will set about changing parents’ mind sets about apprenticeships? That is where we need to change the perception.
“I am glad that he has taken on a number of recommendations that have come forward from the Employment and Learning Committee’s inquiry into careers, because they are smattered throughout the statement. I welcome that.
“Will the Minister expand on the detail of the incentives and what funding or support will be available to SMEs? They are the backbone of our economy.
“How will he encourage them to take on an apprentice? Could the model being put forward by HMRC threaten the work that he intends to do?” said Mr Swann.
Responding to the series of questions posed by Mr Swann, Minister Farry said: “First, he is right to identify that we are seeing a dip in the number of apprentices in recent years. That tells me that the current model is not working.
“It is not being pitched at the right level of skills pressures that employers are seeing. There may well be other issues that we need to consider.
“However, as we look to the future, it is important that we do not simply focus on numbers progressing through the apprenticeship frameworks.
“Ultimately, this has to be judged on the impact on the economy and whether employers are satisfied that they are getting the skilled young people, in particular, that they require to fill their job vacancies and to drive their businesses forward.
“It will also be judged on whether, as a result, productivity is increasing in our economy and whether individuals are finding and sustaining secure employment.
“Obviously, numbers are a secondary issue in that regard, and it is important that we maximise the number of people who are availing themselves of that training.
“We do look to other countries around Europe that have a much bigger footprint in apprenticeships than we have in Northern Ireland.
“Mr Swann is right to stress the fact that parents are a key influencer in decision-making in this regard as in others. That leads neatly into the review of careers.
“I recognise and thank the Committee for its efforts on the report that it published just before Christmas.
“Efforts are being made between my Department and the Department of Education to finalise the terms of reference for the formal review of careers, and I want to discuss those with the Committee before they are formally launched.
“That will be an incredibly important piece of work that will inform the future needs of our economy. It is a much broader issue than simply that of apprentices, although there is considerable overlap in that area.
“Finally, the Chairman (Mr Swann) is also right to make reference to the need for incentives, particularly for SMEs. It is important to recognise that our economy is disproportionately made up of SMEs and microbusinesses in Northern Ireland.
“Around the world, SMEs are, generally speaking, less willing to engage in apprenticeships than larger businesses. That is a reality for all of us.
“That said, we must do as much as we can to encourage them to participate in apprenticeships. We are looking at a number of different schemes. We will explore and study those in greater detail and, indeed, pilot some of them.
“Those would involve some sort of group-training systems. We can also look to see whether there are some financial incentives that we could give directly to those employers and how we phase the payments and also whether larger employers could be encouraged to over-train for sectors, particularly those in their own supply chains.
“It is important that we go out and sell apprenticeships to SMEs in particular. There is the notion that taking on an apprentice is a burden; that it is something that you may wish to do for the common good but is of little benefit to businesses.
“However, it is important to stress that taking on an apprentice is good for the productivity of a business directly.
“There will be a cost to business for perhaps the first year, but, over the lifespan of an apprenticeship - bear in mind that we are stressing a minimum duration of two years - an apprenticeship will pay for itself through the benefits accrued by the business. There are international studies that prove that,” Minister Farry stressed to Assemblyman Swann.