An overhaul of the VET system in Ireland is proposed in a comprehensive policy paper from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) which has also called for investment in key infrastructural projects to help boost job creation and economic growth.

The economic background to the report is one of rising unemployment, in particular youth unemployment, and the collapse of social partnership. ICTU calls for a new agency to be set up, with active involvement of employers and unions, which would focus on work-based training and identify where future skills deficits might emerge. It would also see the creation of a new fund to finance upskilling of the workforce as ‘one of the surest forms of insurance against unemployment’.

In today’s economic circumstances, ICTU says, there must be a strong emphasis on effectiveness, focusing on areas that are problematic. Longer term challenges include the underperformance of young men in the education and training system, which manifests itself in lower completion rates and inferior results and the uncertain labour market performance of the children of migrants. The development of a nationally consistent, credible policy of recognition of prior learning is also required so that adults can focus on acquiring additional skills.

The ICTU proposals also set out terms for properly-structured and genuine internship and work experience programmes. The proposals make clear that such programmes “can be of great benefit to people starting out on their career and as a way for unemployed people to maintain their skills” but they must be properly monitored and not used as a form of cheap labour. IBEC, the employers’ confederation, in a recent survey of employers, also supports work placements and greater links between business and third level institutions as means of bridging the gap between education and employment. ‘In this way will employers get an opportunity to shape the learning that will help drive economic recovery’, IBEC’s head of education policy maintains.

The report acknowledges the influence of the EU on the structure of VET in Ireland. The EU financed the initial network of FÁS (the state training and employment agency) training centres and institutes of technology. European funds also brought a requirement to evaluate courses and programmes, and made it possible for new programmes to be funded, ranging from the reformed apprenticeship of the early 1990s to the Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme which allowed unemployed adults to return to education. European experience was brought to bear through programmes such as ADAPT and Leonardo da Vinci. The report also looks at VET models in Austria, Finland and the Netherlands, and what all these models have in common is a strong involvement of employers and unions in VET institutions. A new VET system in Ireland should follow best practice in these countries.