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Professional apprenticeships: a new era of ‘earn and learn’

By Business & Finance
29 August 2017
professional apprenticeships

Long associated with the trades, apprenticeships are back in vogue for professional careers, writes Deanna O’Connor

The word apprentice has multiple connotations, none of them particularly aspirational for the career-minded. As a society we place a high value on educational acquisitions – degrees, diplomas and letters after the name. Apprenticeship brings to mind traditional trades and crafts roles. More recently, apprenticeship has got a lot of bad press with the international versions of The Apprentice TV shows descending from their original format as a forum for hungry young professionals vying for success to a forum for hungry young attention grabbers vying for their fifteen minutes of fame, the wannabes hoping not to get fired by Alan Sugar, Bill Cullen or Donald Trump. However the image of apprenticeships is changing – and parents who are tearing their hair out over the cost of putting a family of children through college will no doubt be taking notice, and breathing a sigh of relief. 


Karen Blackett OBE, Chairwoman of MediaCom in the UK, was instrumental in setting up apprenticeships as a route into the advertising industry across the water. For her it was a must to fulfil her personal remit of encouraging diversity of every kind, most importantly diversity of thought. She told me, “We did only recruit from certain universities, and that means that everybody has a certain way of thinking because the people that went to those universities had similar backgrounds.” Introducing apprentices into her company meant fresh thinking and new ideas, the veritable lifeblood of the advertising industry, which trades on understanding its consumers and audiences and what makes them tick.

We have a very old-fashioned notion of apprenticeships as craft apprenticeships

The new breed of professional apprenticeships coming on stream here in Ireland pay a wage, offer full-time work and a professional qualification in attractive and profitable industries. The Apprenticeship Council of Ireland put out a call for new proposals in May, to reach their target of 40 new occupational apprenticeships by 2020. This year there will be 15 new apprenticeships.


Tony Donohoe, a member of the Apprenticeships Council and Head of Education and Social Policy at Ibec by day, explained the process: “Normally a consortia of businesses partner with education and training institutions to put together a proposal. The Council looks at the quality of the proposal but also if it is in a growth area, for example the financial services area is potentially an area of growth, particularly post-Brexit. Then when we approve it for development we define the occupational standards and curriculum for education. It is a long and technical process.”


Some of the countries leading the way in apprenticeships would be Germany, Austria and Switzerland. However Donohoe says their systems are not necessarily transferable to an Irish context: “Like any element of education policy it is very much a social and cultural construct. You can’t divorce it from the society which they serve. German apprenticeships, for instance, date back centuries to their guild system, and even now their corporate structures are embedded into their society. You can’t simply transfer that model to an Irish context.”

He cites our strong background in vocationally-oriented education as encouraging to getting the apprenticeships initiative right, but warns that the input of businesses answering the callout is crucial. As Donohoe succinctly puts it, “If you don’t have employers, you don’t have apprentices.”

However the big stumbling block in Ireland is our inherent snobbery around the CAO system and universities versus Institutes of Technology. As Donohoe sees it, “The challenge is around the fact we have a very old-fashioned notion of apprenticeships as craft apprenticeships (construction, electricians etc). That whole perception piece – with young people, with their families, even with some employers – the dial has to be moved on that.”


The Insurance Practitioner Apprenticeship was the first of the new programmes developed and launched in September 2016 after the Apprenticeship Council’s first call for proposals; further new apprenticeships due to launch later this year in various sectors include medical devices, polymer processing and financial services.

Sandra Harvey-Graham is the Apprentice Programme Manager of The Insurance Institute in Ireland. As someone who herself started out in the industry on a (now defunct) professional traineeship scheme, and made a career of it, she understood exactly what was needed when setting up their first intake of apprentices last year. “I have a passion for lifelong learning and seeing how work-based learning can work within an organisation,” she told me. “I knew what the industry needed in terms of competencies from working my way up to a senior management role before I took on this project.”


The insurance industry was suffering from a skills shortage due to an image problem: people didn’t see it in terms of a career. The opportunity to ‘earn and learn’, and achieve a degree-level professional qualification is something she sees as growing in appeal, with 1,000 people already on the waiting list for the 2017 programme, fairly evenly split between graduates, career changers and school leavers. The oldest apprentice to join last year was 35 years old.

The scheme works nationally, in every part of the sector, from small brokers to large companies, with apprentices working in the office and one day a week devoted to live-streaming lectures, in association with the scheme’s partner institution, Sligo IT. In the heavily regulated industry there are three compulsory exams, which take a year, before new starters can directly advise a client.

The best match between the industry skills required and the education of the apprentices

The support of Solas (formerly FAS) in running the apprenticeships is key, with their authorised officers keeping an eye that things are going smoothly for both employers and apprentices. They check up on the companies and look after the employee welfare. A performance matrix is kept updated after exams and assessments, alerting Solas officers to any red flags or causes for intervention.

Sandra notes that apprenticeship will deliver a graduate that is much more “business-ready” than someone who has only undergone academic learning: “They can conduct themselves in an office environment, they know how to network.”


In Ireland, International Financial Services apprenticeships offer three levels  of entry, with salaries ranging from €21K at Associate Level, €35K at Specialist Level and €50K at Advanced Specialist Level while the apprentice works a two year fixed term contract with a leading Financial Services company. At the end they come out with an impressive and sought after qualification and credible real-life experience; Higher Cert in Finance and Business at Associate Level, Higher Diploma in Data Analytics or Fintech at Specialist Level or an MSc in Data Analytics or Fintech at Advanced Specialist Level from the National College of Ireland (NCI).

For employers signing up to the scheme, training costs are covered by Government funding and companies can also place existing employees on the IFS Apprenticeship programme, receiving industry relevant training at no extra cost to the employer. Participating companies include StateStreet, AIB, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and KBC.

Susan Dargan, Executive Vice President, Co-Head of State Street Global Services, EMEA, says IFS programme is a good fit for them because, “We have always developed talent from within State Street and a large proportion of our recruitment is at graduate level.” According to Dargan, the scheme, “assures the best match between the industry skills required and the education of the apprentices, so companies like State Street can secure the skilled labour they need, and improve staff retention in the process.”

Apprenticeships have moved into all sorts of industries and are meeting new needs all the time. From boiler suits, to business suits, the image of the modern apprentice has moved on to meet the needs of today’s working world and skills gaps.  

Apprenticeship standards

The Apprenticeship Council of Ireland was set up in 2014, and tasked with the expansion of Apprenticeship into new sectors of the economy and mapping out the sectors where new apprenticeships can make a real difference to both employers and employees. The Apprenticeship Review Group stated that apprenticeships should have the following criteria:

  • Industry led
  • Two years duration as a minimum
  • Learning that alternates between a workplace and an educational or training institute
  • A minimum of 50% on the job training
  • Part of formal Education and Training
  • Apprentices are employed and paid under a Contract of Apprenticeship
  • Substantial in depth and duration, in order to prepare Apprentices to work autonomously and competently in a specific occupation