#TheReset: Renewed focus on Apprenticeships can help young people deal

Richard Kirk is CEO of Belfast-based Workplus, which was set up to help businesses explore apprenticeships as a way of finding new talent or up-skilling existing employees. Here he argues that apprenticeships can help young people to “earn, learn and be part of the solution” to the oncoming economic crisis… 

At the end of August, some Southern states in America braced itself for Hurricane Laura – the region’s most powerful hurricane in over a century and the joint fastest in Louisiana’s history. Residents ‘battened down the hatches’ and, when the hurricane passed, began to rebuild. A devastating impact and a long road to recovery.

If you were standing beside a Louisiana resident surveying their home in ruins, I’m guessing you wouldn’t be saying to them that the eye of the storm had passed, so you’re over the worst of it. No, you would know that the real work – the ‘hard graft’ – is only just beginning.

The COVID-19 ‘storm’ has been to the UK economy what Hurricane Laura has been to homes and livelihoods across Louisiana. Damaging, devastating, with no quick fixes. As we begin to emerge from the eye of the COVID storm and survey the damage, we are asking how we rebuild well, what we do to recover and become more resilient.

Mick Fealty’s September headline very much resonated with me: Time to wake up to Covid’s economic challenges and get beyond our long, sleepy capture by the status quo.’ Hear, hear! I listened with interest to the #Reset Podcast, with Mick interviewing Ulster Bank Economist Richard Ramsey.

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In that interview, they covered – among other subjects – the topic of young people, noting that young people tend to get hit in recessions more so than other age groups.

That certainly concurs with Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) which recently predicted that youth unemployment in Northern Ireland could rise to 26% (PDF) by the end of 2020. UUEPC has also stated that the economy could take up to five years to rebound whilst unemployment is set to take up to a decade to return to pre-COVID levels.

If such statistics become a reality, its implications would be profoundly impactful and deeply scarring for our 18 – 25 year olds. So what can we do?

It is time for an apprenticeship revolution – and the wheels are already in motion. It is time to really ‘wake up’ to the role apprentices can play in Northern Ireland’s economic recovery. Apprenticeships not simply for young people, but also for re-skilling and ‘returners’. The alternative is having talented people across Northern Ireland staring universal credit square in the face.

Apprenticeships occupy a unique space, bringing together employer, educator, government and apprentice – it is collaboration in its purest form. It’s a win for everyone. For the apprentice, it’s a job, continued education, and that all important connectedness and mentoring.

For the business, it is fresh talent. And for the economy, lower youth unemployment and stemming the leak of unpaid student loans and talent pipeline. (A 2017 report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that three-quarters of graduates will never clear their debt.)

The recent announcement by Economy Minister Diane Dodds of funding support for employers of apprenticeships is warmly welcome. Employers need this kind of incentive right now and apprentices need a greater diversity of apprenticeships opportunities.

The culture is changing around apprenticeships. They are no longer limited to the traditional trades but have broadened across roles e.g. marketing, IT, sales, engineering and are now on offer up to degree level. They are as much for pupils with straights A’s as they are for those leaving school with basic GCSE grades.

If I can be permitted to use the storm analogy again, wouldn’t it be short-sighted to rebuild in exactly the same way as before? When we are thinking about rebuilding, strengthening society, giving hope to our young people, let’s think differently with a fresh approach and new confidence about apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships will help businesses, and allow our young people to earn, learn and – vitally – be part of the recovery solution.

Engineers_10” by IFA teched is licensed under CC BY