Northern Ireland

Doubts raised over Programme-Led Apprenticeship scheme

With unemployment among 16 to 24 year olds at an all-time high, an apprenticeship can seem like a pathway to a career.

But employers are warning that an alternative style of apprenticeship could leave young people with little chance of a job at the end of it.

Most tradespeople will have been an apprentice at the start of their career.

They will have spent time with a journeyman, an old hand in their chosen field, learning their trade and sharing the knowledge gathered over years of experience.

That will be supplemented with an industry-recognised qualification, studying through a local college.

But the electrical trade in Northern Ireland is concerned that some young people are being misled into an alternative apprenticeship.

"Guardians and parents are believing their young person is going through an apprenticeship to become an electrician at the end of four years," said Alfie Watterson, the regional manager for the Electrical Contractors' Association.

"Unfortunately that's not the case and we're seeing early signs at the moment that the Programme-Led Apprenticeship is not going to see an electrician at the end of the fourth year."

The Programme-Led Apprenticeship (PLA) was introduced by the Department of Employment and Learning in 2009.

It was intended as a contingency measure, allowing apprentices who had lost their jobs in the economic downturn to complete their training.

But it does not lead to an industry-recognised qualification, the NVQ Level 3, that an electrician must have to be fully qualified.

The scheme is mostly classroom-based, and PLA students must spend 15 hours a week in college, to qualify for the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

SummitSkills, which sets the standards for qualifying electricians, says the programme delivers just 20% of the experience an apprentice needs.

"They're not qualified for anything and that's the point," said Richard O'Lone, chair of the Northern Ireland Mechanical and Electrical Skills Forum.

"In England, this level two qualification has existed for some time, but for reasons of safety and standards, they have ceased the qualification in January 2012. That's a very loud marker that the department need to listen to."

Mr O'Lone's electrical testing firm near Dungannon has work for three apprentices, but he has only been able to find one who is following the qualification framework laid down by industry.

"We have work going begging for at least another two apprentices, if we could place them in the correct environment on the correct qualification framework.

"We're located in the South West College area and we haven't been able to recruit here, because there is no facility currently for us to employ people on the traditional route of the NVQ Level 3."


Like two other colleges in Northern Ireland, the South West College does not offer the NVQ Level 3 qualification. It has written to employers to tell them about the PLA.

Ciaran McManus, deputy head of training, said: "In the absence of the PLA, we would have more people who would become what's known as NEET - Not in Education, Employment or Training - almost a wasted generation, so I think in that respect, the PLA was very pragmatic.

"It's a contingency arrangement which allows young people to develop some professional and technical skills, to develop some work experience, some employability and some transferable skills which will allow them to progress at a later stage to apprenticeship, to employment or to further and higher education."

In a statement, the Department of Employment and Learning said participants nearing the end of the programme were given the opportunity to meet the Electrical Training Trust "to establish his/her starting point should he/she progress to the Apprenticeships NI programme on securing employment.

"An important consideration in any progression route is establishing each participant's most suitable starting point on the apprenticeship programme and the steps to be taken in meeting the requirements of the industry.

"Training suppliers delivering programme-led apprenticeships have been reminded that the programme is a contingency measure and that it should not be actively marketed in that it is a fall-back measure when all efforts to secure an employer-led apprenticeship have been exhausted."

With one apprentice at work, Richard O'Lone is concerned about the wider impact of students opting for PLA.

"If this continues, there's a legacy that will build up around the Programme-Led Apprenticeship. We will have diluted skills, and skills are what our economy's based on.

"We have traditionally produced apprentices with world-class skills, transferable anywhere. What we're doing now is going backwards and training people to basically work within village life."

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