Now more than ever, apprenticeships provide employers with the skilled workforce they need to be competitive and grow their business.
Apprenticeships will also be a key component of the economic recovery as we seek to build the local skills base. That is why I am continuing to invest in making apprenticeships easier for employers to offer, and for people to access.
There has never been a better time to consider an apprenticeship as a career option. Apprenticeship opportunities are available in a diverse range of fields and give people the opportunity to earn while they learn – gaining real-world practical experience in the workplace, parallel to studying towards recognised, career-launching qualifications. All the while being paid by their employer.
Apprenticeships offering qualifications at levels 2 and 3 (GCSE and A level equivalent) are available in over 150 work areas, including agriculture; construction; childcare; hospitality; hair and beauty; veterinary nursing and many more. Meanwhile, higher level apprenticeships offer qualifications from levels 4 to 8 (foundation degree to master’s degree equivalent) in over 45 occupational areas, including ICT, engineering and accountancy.
Currently there are around 9,000 participants across our apprenticeship and higher level apprenticeship programmes. Apprenticeships are there for those entering the workforce for the first time, or for people already in work who are taking their career and skills to another level.
In February I launched my Economic Recovery Action Plan (ERAP) which sets out how we will build a more competitive and inclusive economy as we recover from the impacts of the pandemic through investment in skills; stimulating research, development and innovation; promoting investment, trade and exports; and building a greener economy.
Apprenticeships will be a key component of the skills aspect of recovery. In the ERAP I have committed to making apprenticeships at levels 2 and 3 available to more people and sectors by making them available to those aged 25 and above. I intend to bring forward proposals to make sure this commitment is delivered this year – age should not be a barrier to lifelong learning.
Last September I announced an apprenticeship recovery package worth more than £26million, including support for employers to take on more apprentices, such as incentives for each new apprenticeship created, and payments to employers who return and retain apprentices who have been on furlough.
The response from employers suggests that the recovery package is having a positive effect on apprenticeship recruitment and retention. I intend to build on this success by extending this support, ensuring that those businesses and sectors impacted most have the opportunity to access these schemes as the economy goes through a phase of reopening.
I want more people to see becoming an apprentice or higher level apprentice as not only a viable option, but a springboard for a whole career and indeed a potentially life-changing opportunity.
This week is the second annual Northern Ireland Apprenticeship Week, with more than 30 virtual events taking place to showcase the success of apprentices and the benefits they bring to employers. The centrepiece of the week is the NI Apprenticeship Awards, taking place on Wednesday 28 April.
The awards will celebrate the talent, skills and benefits to be gained by participating on our apprenticeship programmes.
The calibre of entries has been very high and reflects the continued success of apprenticeships during what has been a hugely challenging year for businesses and learners.
I have really been impressed, for example, by the number of women who are forging careers in areas like engineering and construction – this is something we must encourage and promote. Equally I have seen examples of young men who have entered an apprenticeship at level 2 or 3 and are now completing their foundation degree, which has only be possible through the apprenticeship route.
Critically, I believe Apprenticeships offer a real opportunity to widen access and increase participation across society by encouraging people to gain the skills they need to succeed in the career of their choice. I will continue to work to encourage those aspirations and make it easier for employers to offer apprenticeship opportunities.
Northern Ireland Apprenticeship Week 2021 runs from Monday 26 April to Friday 30 April. For more information on the events, including the NI Apprenticeship Awards, visit nidirect - NI Apprenticeship Week events
More information on apprenticeships is available at nidirect site - Apprenticeships
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