Fresh Thinking, New Talent for Employers

Fresh Thinking, New Talent for Employers


The Laboratory Apprenticeship Programme is relatively new so the concept might be unfamiliar to some businesses but it’s always worth keeping an open mind. The programme is grounded in the strategic need for Ireland to fill a growing skills gap in the sector, along with the tactical requirement we all have to recruit and retain talent.

If you are an employer in this field and you find it challenging to secure and develop committed Laboratory staff, then it’s definitely worth investigating how an apprentice might fit into your organisation.

Here we interview Andrew Hayes, Chartered MCIPD, who Chairs the Steering Group that developed the programme. We learn how it has evolved quickly and successfully over the last few years.

In his role as Human Resources Manager at Helsinn Birex Pharmaceuticals., Andrew has also brought in 3 Laboratory Apprentices to Helsinn so he’s been able to give us his experience from an employers’ perspective too….

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Andrew, as an employer, how has the Lab Apprenticeship Programme worked?

Well as expected, it’s been a great success. Although this programme in Ireland is fairly new, apprenticeships of this type are much more common and popular in Europe, especially Germany and Switzerland. Across the continent apprenticeships span a wide variety of trades such as finance and marketing, not just what we would consider traditional trades. Helsinn is a Swiss company so we are very familiar with the process of educating and integrating apprentices into the organisation.

I think Irish employers will embrace this new way of thinking about apprenticeships as it has proven to be a great way to recruit and develop a talent pipeline.

First up, we have been able to catch motivated people that had been diverted into other industries. The apprentices we have taken on thus far completed the first year of a science degree course but for a variety of reasons were unable to continue and found themselves working in totally unrelated roles. This Apprenticeship has enabled them to continue their education and pursue a career in our sector.

Some people prefer to develop and learn by doing, benefitting from a higher degree of practical hands on learning and studying full-time is not for everyone. Indeed, for many a traditional college education can be undesirable or unachievable. This Apprenticeship gives a bone fide alternative pathway for school leavers, and mature students interested in science to gain a national qualification that can kick start a progressive career in a booming and expanding sector, earning while learning. We believe this is a great way to supplement our current recruitment activities and in a competitive market, we need creative ways to attract talent.

Secondly the programme itself was designed by industry – for the needs of industry. So the skills and tools they are learning to use are practical and useful straight away. The fact that they are working in real industrial labs – which is very hard for an educational institute to replicate – helps a lot.

Finally, upon completion of the Apprenticeship, we predict that participants will be more job-ready than some traditional science graduates that lack real work experience – they are attending college 2 days per week and the workplace 3 days at work during term (5 days in work during recess) so naturally by the time they finish their studies, they are already knitted into the fabric of our lab work and they understand the demands of the business.


So what was your first involvement with the Programme?

Helsinn has always had a close working relationship with educational institutions as we are keen to steer courses towards the needs of industry, which obviously benefits both business and students, in terms of meeting the demand for specific skills.

Back in 2016, an expert group (EGFSN) looked at potential skills shortages in the industry and found that employment was likely to jump by up to 20% in the sector over the next five years. One of its core recommendations was to develop such apprenticeship programmes to meet likely demand. IBEC and industry representatives like ourselves then got together to devise a suitable Laboratory Apprenticeship. I was involved at the outset and Chaired the Steering Group. It is a good example of strategy in motion.

The timing was incredibly tight – our first kick-off meeting was Dec 16th 2016 and by the end of 2017 we had the programme approved in principle. By July 2018 it was fully validated and approved. By the end of August 2018 we had the sites (participating company labs) approved by an authorised officer, the mentors had been trained and we had developed an onboarding programme for apprentices. Ultimately, we took on the first intake of 14 Apprentices in Sept. 2018. We were lucky enough that John Behan, Technical University Dublin was enthusiastic from the beginning and TU Dublin is now the National lead body to roll out the programme to other universities across the country.


What’s the Vision for the future of the Lab Apprenticeships?

We are keen to work with more employers and grow participation.

We are looking to roll this out across the Regional Institutes of Technology in Ireland. Initially the first intake was done in Dublin and now Waterford is up-and-running. Cork is a hub of excellence in this sector so it’d be great to see another programme there soon.

One of the very positive things about the programmes currently in progress is that they are not dependent on any one large-scale employer – they are mainly business that are taking one or two apprentices with maybe a minimum of 11 or so apprentices in an intake. This is sustainable both for the companies and for the programme itself.

So we’d love to hear from employers across the country that are interested in participating.

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