School-leavers: Keep an open mind on career options

Ahead of ‘Ireland Skills Live’ this month, Matt Cotterell, Head of School of Mechanical, Electrical and Process Engineering at CIT, talks about the value of apprenticeships
School-leavers: Keep an open mind on career options
Matt Cotterell, Head of School Mechanical & Process Engineering with Alan Kelly, Student from Coláiste Pobail Bheanntrá at the CIT Engineers Roadshow in Coláiste Pobail Bheanntrá .Pic Darragh Kane

APPRENTICESHIP first developed as a system of training in the Middle Ages and was controlled by the craft guilds and town councils.

A master craftsman was entitled to employ young people as an inexpensive form of labour in exchange for providing food, lodging and formal training in the craft. In more recent times, apprenticeship evolved into a system of training practitioners in a trade or profession with significant on-the-job training and accompanying periods of formal study.

In Ireland and the UK, apprenticeship is traditionally associated with the crafts and trades as encountered in the construction and engineering sectors. In European countries, it has had a broader meaning and is seen a mode of learning which is very well respected and on a par with formal third level education.

The ‘earn and learn model’ is now receiving strong political support in Ireland and the Apprenticeship Council was established in 2014 with the aim of broadening the range of apprenticeships available, increasing participation rates and achieving a better gender balance.

Traditional craft apprenticeships are classified at level 6 on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) but new apprentice qualifications can range from NFQ level 5 to level 10. The period for an apprenticeship qualificatio

n is two to four years with at least 50% spent ‘on the job’ under the supervision of a suitably qualified workplace mentor. The significant ‘on the job’ element gives a context and relevance to what an apprentice learns in the ‘off the job’ study periods. Qualifications in financial services, culinary skills, engineering, laboratory technician/analyst, logistics, insurance practice, computer/software technology etc. are now provided through the apprentice system. All apprenticeships are industry-led and full details can be seen at

Many of those that come through the craft apprenticeship system have an entrepreneurial flair and become self-employed or go on to set up their own companies. Others choose to progress to third level education programmes, either on a part-time or full-time basis, and become highly sought after by potential employers. Uniquely in the Institutes of Technology, apprentice and full-time classes share the same facilities leading to great synergies and well established pathways for transfer and progression.

Ireland has one the highest participation rates globally in progression from second to third level education at circa 64% and this has contributed in no small way to the economic well-being of the country. However, formal full-time third level education is not suited to every school-leaver and wider consideration of career options, such as apprenticeships, is necessary primarily for the individuals concerned and also in developing a workforce to meet the skills needs of the country.

Many career choices are informed by the CAO points system; our advice to school-leavers is to keep an open mind, consider the type of work you would like to do, speak to people engaged in this work, seek relevant work experience in transition year and then make up your own mind.

In this regard, ”Ireland Skills Live”, being hosted in the RDS Simmonscourt from Thursday to Saturday March 21 to 23, offers a unique opportunity for school-leavers and their advisors to explore a myriad of career options. This national skills event will, for the first time, provide a public platform for the National Apprentice Skills Competitions. Competitors in the National Apprentice Skills Competitions may also progress to represent Ireland in the prestigious World Skills Competitions. Irish World Skills teams are very well respected internationally with 74% of Irish competitors winning medals since 2003.

”Ireland Skills Live” also seeks to promote skills-based education and training programs available in both higher and further education institutions.

Employers and education/training providers will highlight current skills requirements and available employment opportunities. The event is open to schools/college groups, parents and individuals (under 16’s must be accompanied by an adult).

Further information and registration details are available at

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