Workplus: Apprenticeships - offering new opportunities and broadening participation in Northern Ireland

Richard Kirk, CEO, Workplus. 

Apprenticeships have been around for decades but perhaps have never before been so prevalent in our societal psyche. 

In Boris Johnson’s Skills Speech last year, the predominant theme was the value in combining earning and learning, both to the employer as well as the individual. A few months on, apprenticeships were a strong feature in the UK Chancellor’s Budget. Closer to home, the Department for the Economy added its support to grow apprenticeships by extending the apprentice recruitment incentive for employers.  

The benefits of apprenticeships run broad and deep – for the employer, they mean enthusiastic new talent that can be moulded and shaped to suit the company. For the apprentice, it’s a job from the start, an opportunity to earn and learn, as well as the promise of mentoring in their early career journey.  

I work with dozens of companies across Northern Ireland – long-established SMEs as well as exciting start-ups. Some of those companies have been employing apprentices for years while others have recently embarked on their apprenticeship journey. Some of the HR professionals I am working with have talked about how they’ve ‘woken up to apprenticeships’ while others have explained why they have put apprenticeships at the heart of their recruitment approach 

Regardless of the size or culture of the company, they all see the benefits of apprenticeships. Yes, the financial benefits are clear in terms of government backing, but other benefits run deeper, particularly as we look towards emerging from the pandemic and its economic and social impact. 

Last year, a survey of 2,000 young people made a sobering read. According to the research, carried out by Censuswide, 41% of young people believe their future goals now seem "impossible to achieve", with this rising to 50% of those surveyed from poorer backgrounds. Furthermore, more than one in three young people say they have lost hope of getting their dream job because of coronavirus, the Prince's Trust said. The charity also said the survey of people aged 16 to 25 across the UK showed 44% had lower aspirations for the future as a result of the pandemic.

One of the great aspects of apprenticeships is how they address the barriers to young people’s hopes for a future career. They have a job from the start, they stay in education and they’re plugged into a team. The same is true for individuals of all ages seeking to retrain and upskill.  

I’m delighted to hear about the One Million Chances campaign. The role of HR professionals in championing diversity, widening participation and embracing alternative pathways which combine work and education cannot be understated.  

At Workplus, we make it our business to help HR professionals grow their teams and find new talent through apprenticeships.  

As I write this, Castlederg has just pipped Ballywatticock with an all-time temperature record so I’m not sure if a fire analogy is appropriate as we bake in a heatwave! (Then again, maybe it is!) The One Million Chances campaign and apprenticeships have a strong commonality – both fan the flames of aspiration.  

And that is what is at the very heart of apprenticeships – cultivating aspiration, creating opportunity and nurturing talent.  

Richard Kirk is CEO of Workplus, an online platform that makes it easier for employers to find apprentices. For further information visit  


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