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10,000 trainees due for Ulster

Minister wants colleges and businesses to work together to help tackle the province's growing skills shortage.Ian Graham reports

The Government today set a target of having 10,000 apprentices in training by 2010 to help to tackle the skills shortage in Northern Ireland.

It will mean achieving more than a 50 per cent increase in the current total of less than 6,500 in under five years.

Market trends show that more employers are seeking professionally and technically-trained staff rather than those with academic qualifications alone.

Angela Smith, Ulster's employment and learning minister, said more needed to be done to ensure the skills of the workforce matched the abilities required for Northern Ireland's future economic competition.

She told the GMB trade union conference in Belfast: "I believe we must take a strategic approach to acquiring the skills necessary to enable us to take advantage of future opportunities.

"The Northern Ireland economy has changed dramatically in the past 10 years and our unemployment rate is at an all-time low, but we are experiencing skills shortages in the professional and technical sectors," she said.

To tackle the shortage, the minister said she intended to raise the number of apprentices in training in the province to 10,000 by 2010.

She said: "To achieve this, it is vital that government, universities, colleges, employers and trade unions all work together to identify the skills we need now and in the future."

Affirming her commitment to making links between education and training and the economy, she added: "I would argue that the routes to individual success are many and varied, but we must make the links between education and training and the skills our economy needs and be prepared for market-led strategic change."

Sinn Fein education spokesman Michael Ferguson, MLA, urged the Government to provide incentives for small and medium-sized companies to take on trainees from poor areas such as the Shankill in Belfast.

He criticised current job skills and apprenticeship programmes, claiming they failed the economy because they did not address deprivation and poverty. He claimed teenagers were "paid a pitiful allowance", with the more skilled often dumped when, after two years, they became entitled to a minimum wage.

He said: "Modern apprenticeships need to be frameworked as a professional passport for all trades and vocations, and the training opportunities built into all government tendering down through the supply chain.

"Employers must take responsibility for their future skills needs just as government needs to accept responsibility for underpinning educational underachievement by investment in the social starting point of every trainee."

In England, where recruitment has been strong, the emphasis has moved to retaining apprentices for long enough to complete their training. Around a third of apprentices complete the scheme in England, although a recent report from Leicester university suggested 65 to 70 per cent need to do so if the country is to compete with Germany, where vocational education is a strong tradition.

The high drop-out rate has been attributed to many causes, from trainees being feckless to the success of their training leading them to find better-paid jobs before they complete.

In Northern Ireland, a scheme called Lecturers into Industry means even those young people who study only in college are getting up-to-date vocational skills direct from employers.

Tutors take placements in industry and bring their up-to-date knowledge back to college to benefit those students who do not have the benefit of working hands-on in the workplace.

The scheme is sponsored by the Learning and Skills Development Agency in Belfast.

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