Apprenticeship and Further Education and Training

Apprenticeship and Further Education and Training

Full Transcript; We have had a number of opportunities to speak about skills and further and higher education recently in the context of the European Year of Skills. It is really welcome and shows a renewed focus on this area. It actually vindicates the idea of having a stand-alone Ministry to deal with further and higher education. It has certainly brought an increased focus on it. I was taken by the Minister’s story that he insisted on having that “F” at the start of his Department’s title to put that further education piece front and centre. That visibility piece is very important.

At the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the phrase “cultural handbrake” has been used regarding apprenticeships. Perhaps the middle-class mum or dad wants Billy or Joe to head off to university but maybe not to an apprenticeship. That is a kind of cultural snobbery we need to get over because there is an enormous range of job opportunities in the area involving vital skills that we need in a range of areas all across the economy.

I have a particular interest in further education. Members will know that I was a primary schoolteacher before I entered Leinster House, but my father was an instructor in FÁS and in AnCO, as it was previously called.

That was a fantastic job in all sorts of senses. In one sense, it was a fantastic job in that it funded his children to access university education in a way that he did not have the opportunity to do. The other thing that is very interesting about the job is that his formal education stopped before the end of primary school and he went to work in factories. However, because he had access to further and lifelong education, he engaged in City and Guilds courses, upskilled and retrained himself over the course of his career and he ended up in a position where he could access that instructor grade.

It was a fantastic job also due to the people who came into his class. Over the course of his career, he taught pre-apprenticeship classes for people who were going on to work on a factory floor and he also taught drafting back at a time when paper and pen was still how the business was done. As time moved on, as time always does, he moved to AutoCAD, teaching the young men and women who came into his class how to draw using a computer. There were many young men and women who came into his class who would have stepped out of that formal education route when they completed either their intermediate certificate, as it once was, or their leaving certificate and who did not take the college route. However, they accessed those education courses in what was FÁS, or AnCo before that, and then went on to have very successful and productive working lives. That instilled in me from the very start the importance of this pathway in terms of providing education for people.

I want to turn to the well-being report which was issued two weeks ago and which looks at a range of measures and indices by which we can measure our society in a somewhat more meaningful way than just by using a GDP or GNI* figure. On education, it was interesting to look specifically at the lifelong learning rate. We do very well on education generally but, as has already been mentioned in the debate today, our lifelong learning is not as good as we would aspire to. In 2022, Ireland had approximately the same lifelong learning rate as the EU average, at around 11.8%, but when we look at the top performers, we are way behind Sweden, at 36%, and Denmark, at 28%. It is interesting to look at the equality make-up of that. Many people who qualify are within the 18 to 24 age range and they are in full-time education. However, we need to look beyond that. Just over 10% in the 25 to 34 age cohort are engaged in education of some kind over the course of a week but when we look at the 55 to 64 age range, that drops to 1.4%. If we are talking about things like the digital divide and the need for people to upskill their digital literacy, which is not necessarily in terms of their workforce abilities but for older people to be able to access emails or the services they need through a digital format, then that digital literacy piece is very important. When I see that lifelong learning figure of only 1.4% in that older age cohort, I say to myself that this is something we should absolutely be targeting. We should be making sure that people are not left behind as we make the transition to a digital economy or digital society.

I want to mention the Sustainable Development Goals. I have put a specific question to the Minister by way of parliamentary question regarding target 4.b and the Minister of State might be able to respond in his closing remarks. If not, I can await the reply to the parliamentary question. Under that Sustainable Development Goal, there is a commitment to: “By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology” and a range of other issues. I have asked the Department whether any work is happening within the Department to help Ireland to play its part in vindicating that goal. I also mention target 4.5, which states: “By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and children in vulnerable situations”.

I now turn to the report of the Joint Committee on Autism which was published just recently. One of the findings reported to us by AsIAm is that the rate of underemployed or unemployed people within the autistic community is shocking, to say the least. That report highlighted two sides of a coin that we should be paying attention to in this regard. On the one hand, we absolutely need workforce planning for that range of particular therapies that we need to make available to people in the disability community, for example, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy, which are of pivotal importance. We also have to make sure that we are tailoring our educational provision so people who, for example, are autistic have access to further lifelong education opportunities that will enable them and scaffold them in terms of seeking a place within the workforce.

In the Minister of State’s opening speech, he discussed the megatrends that we see in terms of the change in the workforce and he mentioned digitisation, decarbonisation and demographics. I have already referred to the digitisation piece. We need to make sure we do not create a digital divide by leaving people behind who may not have access to those skills, and there is an adult literacy piece involved in that.

In terms of demographics, we know that the caring economy is going to expand as a percentage of our total economy. We know also that the caring economy is not well rewarded within the market-driven system that we have, so people who find themselves working in the caring economy are generally not well paid. It would be true to say, and I agree with Deputy Paul Murphy, that the privatisation of our health services has not been something that has either improved the quality of caring that is being made available to our people or the pay and conditions of those who are giving that caring. Maybe we need to be thinking about the big picture, about a more public-driven approach to how we provide caring service and about co-operative-type schemes for caring that we see in places like Japan, for example, or maybe we need to be having a discussion about universal basic income. We have seen a version of the universal basic income introduced under this Government for artists and maybe we should be looking at a universal basic income for carers so we are actually rewarding people who are operating within that caring economy.

With regard to decarbonisation and the flip side to that, which is nature preservation and nature restoration, we have seen charts on the huge ramping up of heat in our oceans that are frightening for anybody who has been paying attention. The need to make a radical transition in how we run our economies is staring us in the face, if anybody cares to pay attention. There is an enormous need for people who can work within this new green economy that is now emerging. I spoke some weeks ago about the range of job opportunities that exist in offshore wind, and I am not going to rehearse those. However, around nature restoration, for example, we need taxonomy specialists and people who can identify things, such as what is in a field that is worth preserving, people who understand plant and animal behaviours, eco-hydrologists and ecological engineers. That sounds very fancy but that could be people who are remediating some of the work we have done previously on rivers or drainage systems, which we have seen overwhelmed only in recent days by heavy rainfall of unprecedented levels. Maybe we need those people who are going to give the space back to the river. That could be people who are driving the digger or fixing the leaky dams, and it need not necessarily be at a very high level. However, there is great urgency attached to the development of skills within this economy.