‘Critical vacancies’ in apprentices and engineers

There are "critical vacancies" across all industry sectors in the midlands, from metal fabrication, concrete precast, and prefabrication, to IT, food, polymer and automation.

That’s according to John Costello, manager at the Midland Regional Skills Forum, who conducted a survey among 45 companies, ranging in size from the large, medium and small to the micro in Westmeath, Longford, Laois and Offaly.

The most urgent vacancies are in entry level and experienced operatives, in both the attraction and retention of people.

There is also a "serious shortage" of all types of engineers, from civil and mechanical, to processing, electrical and automation, he told a meeting of the council’s Economic, Enterprise and Tourism SPC.

Another "pinch point" for companies was welders and fabricators, while technicians and apprenticeships are also in critical decline.

Recommendations emerging from the survey, Mr Costello said, would be to change the word "operative", traditionally viewed as a "low-skilled" role, and offer more defined pathways for career progression.

The shortage of engineers is not a "quick fix", he said and course timelines range between three and four years.

He believed it would be necessary to "cross skill" technicians, as opposed to upskilling them, while despite the grants available for apprenticeships, there is little uptake.

Companies wishing to improve workers’ skills, Mr Costello said, are looking for mix of online inactive webinars, and on- and off-site practical training.

He said there was a need for employers to become involved in curriculum

"What we’re looking at is some form of service recruitment portal in the midlands to try to address these manufacturing vacancies," said Mr Costello.

"The old days of going abroad and bringing in welders, fabricators, engineers, is a short fix because once they come in, given the problems with housing, they’ll follow the money, and the loyalty to the local company is just not there."

He added, that a new robotics apprenticeship, involving TUS, for upskilling apprentices to possibly a Level 8 degree level, is on its way.

He also said that "recognition of prior learning", those without a formal qualification, would need to be fast tracked to a qualification.

In response to the presentation, given in council chambers, members of the SPC said more would need to be done to attract young people into trades, and both parents and teachers need to get on board.

Mullingar Chamber president John Geoghegan commented that the majority of students sitting their Leaving Cert were entering third level education.

"I wonder do you engage actively with second level students to appraise them of the apprenticeship routes and what’s there outside the third level route?

"We in the chamber would feel that is really important because the economy at the minute is under enormous pressure, with full employment and high inflation, and a low supply of workforce, particularly at operative level.

"I think a lot of that is that they can’t see a future (career path), where there is a future if they train and upskill."

In agreement, Cllr Aengus O’Rourke said there had to be a better way of "feeding this information into the schools"; "There might be a bit of a weakness there in career guidance within the second level structure," he said.

Cllr John Dolan said there is too much focus on points, and schools "promote" themselves on points alone.

"I don’t blame schools for trying to promote themselves, but they’re on the front of every paper with students who got over 600 points," Cllr Dolan began.

"Intel are paying €75 an hour for electricians, now I don’t know any doctor getting paid that, and I can tell you the electrician will have a less stressful life."

He also said apprenticeships make "economic sense" for many.

"If you’re going on to become an electrician, you’ll be paid all through your apprenticeship and parents won’t have to fund college.

Cllr Emily Wallace said more needed to be done on the branding of apprenticeships and career progression.

"You can’t get an electrician or a plumber, there’s no shortage of work there, it’s how we get this message out to the kids. I see them coming in to the shop saying college isn’t for them – where is the career guidance telling them their options?"

Speaking from experience, Cllr Bill Collentine wondered if apprentices go for academic tuition too early in the experience.

"Is it still the practice that the apprentice is sent away on a course fairly quickly? I found that you won’t hire an apprentice unless you need one, and then when you get them, you don’t have them long enough before they’re sent off on a course.

"It doesn’t give the apprentice enough practical experience on the job before being sent off."