Training Bottlenecks Hitting Skilled Trades
Bill Toner, SJ
The recent survey of vacancies by FÁS and Forfas shows that among the occupations most in demand by the Celtic Tiger are skilled maintenance and skilled production workers. At present there are no fewer than 8,100 vacancies for these grades in the Republic. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has tried to get a fitter or electrician or bricklayer to do a small job. In a recent survey, employers reported that the job of skilled tradesperson was the most difficult job to fill. Many tradespersons are being recruited from overseas. The kind of jobs included in this group include electricians, fitters, electronic workers, welders, bricklayers, carpenters and many others.
The main reason for the shortage of skilled people seems to be the failure of the training system to respond quickly enough to the increasing demand. Part of the training of apprentices takes place in FÁS centres and various Colleges but these cannot cope with the numbers now being sent to them by employers. Employers in turn are slow to take on more apprentices if they have had difficulties in getting them scheduled through the system. The employers suggest that the bottlenecks in FÁS could be solved by more outsourcing, and in fact a certain amount of this is being done, particularly in the E.S.B. FÁS are also finding it very difficult to recruit enough trainers, given the level of earnings now possible for tradesmen in industry or construction. Employers are more critical of the role of the Colleges. They see the Colleges as working to a time-table which is not suited to the training needs of industry. Most of the Colleges are fully operational for about 35 weeks a year, whereas it suits industry to spread training through the 52 weeks of the year. Employers strongly deny the traditional criticism that they are failing in their responsibilities by refusing to take on apprentices.
While the basic rates of pay for many of the trades is about £8 an hour, this rate rarely if ever applies in practice. Local arrangements which incorporate agreements on productivity, quality or flexibility push the hourly rate up to about £14 an hour. This works out at a weekly wage of about £550 (about £28,000 per year for steady work). Many craft jobs have guaranteed rostered overtime, travel time and payments for being on call. There are many reports of overtime or other special circumstances bringing earnings of skilled workers to £800 a week or more. It should be pointed out that many of the highest-paying jobs are by nature uncertain. For instance building workers work on a site-to-site basis and may put in several weeks between jobs. At the moment this is unlikely but a downturn is always possible. Tradespersons in \'safe\' jobs or more pleasant conditions may not earn as much as those in the building trade or in difficult outdoor locations but should still gross about £24,000 a year with allowances.
Before taking up an apprenticeship, a young persons needs to be fairly sure that the occupation would suit them. Some young people find the job less attractive than they expected, as tradespersons sometimes have to work in cramped, noisy, flooded, dark, cold or dangerous conditions, and, like any professional, they have to get the job done. They are often most needed when something goes wrong and work conditions are far from ideal.
Apart from the possible physical hardship of the job, there is a long period of training and study to be got through. Although the minimum education requirement is technically 5 Ds in the Junior Certificate, it is unusual nowadays for apprentices to be taken on without their Leaving Certificate. It then takes four years to get the National Craft Certificate which includes 5 months in a FÁS training centre, 5 months in an Education College, and several practical and theory assessments. Pay for apprentices is modest to start, being only £120 in the first year, but it rises to near the full craft basic rate in the fourth year, and occasionally there are bonuses. It is very important for someone thinking of taking up an apprenticeship to know what the job is like and to talk to a guidance counsellor or a knowledgeable adult.
The most difficult part of taking up a trade is getting an apprenticeship. However this is somewhat easier than it was in former years when trades were passed on from father to son. Only one or two trades still control entry in this way. However, only the \'big players\', such as the County Councils or the Army, are likely to advertise for apprentices in the national papers. Other recruitment tends to be by word of mouth, so a young person should look out for local contacts who might be able to put in a word. The Local Employment Service (LES) is a good contact. The apprenticeship adviser there will usually help the young person with their application. The LES usually knows if there are firms looking for apprentices. Also, in each of the FÁS regions the Services to Business section has an apprenticeship adviser, who would often know of firms who are looking for apprentices. It would not be a complete waste of time writing to likely local employers to see if they are taking on apprentices. Occasionally employers only think about taking on an apprentice when they come across a likely candidate. Employers are not always enthusiastic about taking on apprentices because they bear much of the cost of training them but have no guarantee that they will stay with them.
Apart from the money there are many advantages in having a trade. There is the pride to be had in mastering a skill. Most people with a trade learn to be \'handy\' and are able to carry out repairs and alterations in their own houses that would otherwise cost a lot of money. Tradespersons are also less vulnerable to total unemployment than many other workers as they can often pick up odd jobs or even go out on their own and look for business.
Apart from trades, the other main areas where job vacancies are currently high are as follows:
Production operatives (e.g. machinists, plastic workers) 8,300 Clerical and secretarial (e.g. telebusiness, computer operators) 6,800 Personal service (e.g. catering workers, cleaners) 4,900 Transport and communications (e.g. drivers, couriers) 3,100 Labourers 3,000
Apprenticeships and other jobs would be easier to find and fill if the facilities for job search were better in Ireland. A 1998 report by the OECD was critical of these facilities in Ireland and noted that staffing levels in the Employment Service are poor. Annual vacancy registrations in Ireland have tripled from 18,800 in 1992 to 67,000 in 1998. There is no doubt that this has put a considerable burden on the Employment Service, who nevertheless do an excellent job within their resources.
My thanks to a number of people in statutory and voluntary agencies who provided me with information for this article.
Bill Toner SJ
ESRI, National Survey of Vacancies in the Private Non-Agricultural Sector 1998: a Report Prepared for FAS and Forfas. Dublin 1999.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, The Public Employment Service: Greece, Ireland, Portugal. Paris 1998.