In 1992 'Industrial Training in Ireland,' an official report authored by Dr Frank Roche and the late Paul Tansey, concluded that Ireland was a poor trainer — both the State and the business sectors — and there was an urgent need to radically upgrade the skill base of the workforce. In the quarter century since then not much has changed and a July 2017 paper from the Department of Public Expenditure (PER) shows that the cost of public outlays on training and further education was €1.7bn in 2016.


The PER "acknowledged that there are legacy data and systems issues, arising from the fundamental reforms of the sector, which severely limits the level of analysis in the FET (Further Education and Training) sector, particularly for trend, outcomes and individual level analysis."

Simply put the PER cannot evaluate how much of the spending is wasted.

The Irish Times called the sector, The Cinderella sector, in 1996 and today it's budget is bigger than the public support for higher education.

However, effective training programmes and further education are important.

Germany has a low rate of young third-level graduates but a successful dual education system (education in tandem with workplace experience for a large range of occupations) while Denmark has a long-standing tradition of lifelong learning.

Then there are countries like Ireland, France, Italy and Spain that have a high number of young people who are called NEETs.

According to Eurostat in 2016 almost one in five (18.3%) of 20-34 year olds were neither in employment nor in education and training (NEETs); this corresponded to approximately 16.9m young people and the Irish ratio was 18.5% and 15.6% for males — some presumably view attending courses is a waste of time and it may well be. Others may find that there is no sanction for not making the effort.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a think-tank for mainly governments of rich countries, said in 2015 that its Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) signalled that despite improvements in recent times, Irish adults’ skill level was significantly below the OECD average, and in the bottom quintile, both in numeracy and literacy skills. This relatively poor performance was partly explained by those aged 45 to 65, who on average had relatively low levels of educational attainment. However, according to PIAAC, younger people in Ireland also compared unfavourably with their peers in other OECD countries. The percentage of younger adults scoring at higher proficiency levels was low in Ireland in an international comparison.

The PER paper says expenditure on further education and training provision (FET) and employment supports, across the Social Protection and Education sectors, amounted to €1.7bn in 2016. 60% of this investment related to Social Protection’s range of supports the investment provided support to an estimated 87,500 recipients.

Over the period 2009 to 2015 expenditure in this area was on an upward trajectory, peaking at €1.7bn in 2015 and 2016 saw a reduction of €42m or 2.4%.

The Department says international evidence indicates that Ireland spends above the OECD average (2013 data) in this area. The allocation of funding differs from the OECD average with higher levels of training and direct job creation supports.

Ireland vocational education, training, public spending

There were over 18,000 in Back to Education courses in March 2017 and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in a 2015 research report said the scheme was in effect useless as there was no evidence of improved employment outcomes for recipients. Some recipients had been on courses for up to six years.

The damning conclusion of the researchers on the second biggest activation programme was:  

In fact, compared to similarly unemployed individuals, jobseekers who commenced an education course supported by the BTEA programme in September/October 2008 were between 23 and 38 percentage points less likely to have exited unemployment to a job by June 2012, and between 14 and 29 percentage points less likely at the same time in 2014.

In 2015 outside of the June-September period, the typical number of recipients was 24,000. Even though officially classified as unemployed they were not included in official unemployment data.

The report said that in response to the unemployment crisis, which evolved from the recession, the Department of Social Protection (DSP) increased its expenditure on its Working Age Employment Supports schemes, which comprise a suite of activation programmes aimed at assisting social welfare recipients to progress into employment.

Examples include the Community Employment (CE) scheme, JobBridge, the Back to Education Allowance (BTEA) and the Back to Work Enterprise Allowance. Between 2007 and 2012, expenditure on these programmes rose by 48%. However,  the DSP’s spending on the BTEA scheme more than trebled, increasing from €64.1m to €199.5m, while the number of recipients quadrupled, growing from approximately 6,000 to almost 25,000. In terms of total expenditure, the BTEA scheme represents the second largest activation measure in Ireland, second only to the CE scheme.

The report said that there is little doubt that schemes which support access to education, like the BTEA, are a vital component of any life-long learning strategy. "Nevertheless, the evidence presented in this report, which is consistent with the findings from past reviews of the programme, raises concerns about the effectiveness of the BTEA in assisting jobseekers to transition from unemployment to employment. There is evidence that the BTEA scheme was successful in redirecting participants to further study or training. However, the scheme does not appear to be effective in terms of its core goal of assisting the unemployed to transition to employment. Furthermore, there is some concern around the degree of progression into higher level study for those BTEA participants that go this route of continued education."

AnCo (founded in 1967) and succeeded by FÁS (Foras Áiseanna Saothair) from 1988, were public agencies that over past decades gave good business to private trainers but the they were unfit for purpose. The discredited FÁS has been rebranded as SOLAS (An tSeirbhís Oideachais Leanúnaigh agus Scileanna) — the acronym is the Gaelic word for light!

An OECD report in 2010 concluded in respect of FÁS that: "Evaluations and data to assess its efficiency and effectiveness are lacking," and in general: "Data on labour market outcomes are fragmented and research on VET (vocational education and training) is scarce. The wide range of VET programmes has not been systematically evaluated."

The Irish apprenticeship system is also stuck in the past and is the worst in Western Europe while employers appear to have little interest in funding or participating in it.

Evaluating Further Education and Training Expenditure: Strategic Pilot Initiative Report (SOLAS) — published this year by the Department of Public Expenditure, it has been written/approved by people who need training in communication skills.

Returning Irish needed to fill workforce's big skills gap