Apprenticeships frequently asked questions (Northern Ireland)

What is an apprenticeship?

A formal apprenticeship must be recognised by Government and appear on the list of approved Apprenticeship Frameworks.

A formal apprenticeship is a job that allows someone to gain certification in their field whilst working, and consists of three core elements:

  • On the job learning – this is the job the apprentice learns how to do with the employer. This typically makes up 80% of an apprenticeship.
  • Off the job learning – delivered by a registered apprenticeship training provider. This typically makes up 20% of an apprenticeship.
  • Essential skills in English and Maths – this only applies where an apprentice has not achieved English and Maths to an agreed level of difficulty as set out by the individual apprenticeship Framework

The Northern Ireland Government’s Guides for Apprenticeship Employers can be found here

Do I need to treat an apprentice differently to other staff?

No. To the employer an apprentice is an employee and must be contracted and treated as such.

Are apprentices entitled to holiday?

Yes, in line with their employer’s holiday policy. Apprentices are subject to the same company policies and procedures as any other staff member, including benefits.

How long should an apprenticeship last?

Apprentices in Northern Ireland must be contracted and paid for a minimum of 21 hours a week (including their off-the-job training) for at least 12 months.

An apprenticeship usually takes between two and four years. Employers are advised to contract apprentices for the minimum duration recommended for the specific apprenticeship.

Do I have to employ an apprentice once they’ve completed their apprenticeship?

No, but employers are encouraged to create apprenticeships with the intention on keeping their apprentice(s) on once they complete.

This isn’t mandated but is deemed preferable. It is advised that an employer’s intentions are made clear to the apprentice throughout so an apprentice can plan their progression accordingly.

Notifying an apprentice that they will not continue in their role only days or weeks before the apprenticeship ends is poor practice.

How old should an apprentice be?

In Northern Ireland the apprenticeship programmes are subject to different age restrictions:
Apprenticeships NI – Level 2 and 3

  • Apprenticeships are available to individuals aged 16 – 24. The Department for the Economy (DfE) pays the full cost of the off-the-job training.
  • For those aged 25 and over, individuals can only undertake an apprenticeship in occupational areas which are identified as being economically important in Northern Ireland. 50 per cent of the associated training costs will be covered by DfE. See here for a full list of the Apprenticeship 25+ Frameworks.

Higher Level Apprenticeships – Level 4 to Level 7

  • Not subject to age restrictions. DfE pays the full cost of the off-the-job training

For those with degrees and other post-16 qualifications, candidates can only have their training funded if their apprenticeship is in a different subject to the existing post-16 qualifications they hold.

Access to Work (NI) can provide support for employers in Northern Ireland making adjustments to support apprentices with a disability into the workplace.

An Employer Incentive Payment ranging from £250 to £1,500 is available for employers whose apprentice successfully completes their full Level 2 or Level 3 apprenticeships framework. This is dependant on the complexity and level of the apprenticeship undertaken and the age of the apprentice on joining the programme.

For step by step guidance on employing and managing apprentices, please refer to our A Manager’s Guide to Apprenticeships.

What is an Apprenticeship Framework?

Apprenticeship Frameworks are made up of Knowledge and Competency units of study, which are delivered as either combined or separate qualifications.

Frameworks are written against National Occupational Standards, which inform the individual units of learning and associated criteria.

Apprentices working to a framework are assessed on a continuous basis throughout their apprenticeship and once all criteria have been successfully passed can achieve their full apprenticeship certificate.

Who is involved in the delivery of an apprenticeship in Northern Ireland?

There are three main organisations involved in the delivery of apprenticeships in Northern Ireland:

The Employer – who is responsible for creating and providing the job and issuing a contract of employment for the duration of the apprenticeship.

The employer is responsible for paying the apprentice’s wages and selecting the training contractor/provider who will support the off-the-job training.

The Training Contractor/Provider – is responsible for providing the off-the-job training to the apprentice that makes up 20% of the total apprenticeship. This time must be included in the apprentice’s contractual working hours.

A useful search facility is available here on the Department for the Economy (DfE) website to find a suitable training contractor in your local area to deliver Level 2 and Level 3 ApprenticeshipsNI training.

What is the ‘apprenticeship levy’?

From May 2017 the Government changed the way apprenticeships were funded in England, which included the introduction of the apprenticeship levy.

The levy is paid by employers with an annual pay bill of £3million or more and is calculated at 0.5% of an employer’s annual wage bill over the £3million. It is deducted like a tax from monthly PAYE.

Why was the Levy brought in?

The introduction of the levy was part of the Government’s apprenticeship reforms in England, which were designed to put employers in the driving seat.

The levy helps the Government increase investment in apprenticeships. The system puts employers in control of who they buy their apprenticeship training from.

These reforms are for England only, what if my company employs people who are based outside of England in the UK Nations?

The levy is paid by all UK employers who have an annual wage bill of £3million or more, but levy vouchers used to pay for apprenticeship training only applies in England.

For organisations that pay the levy and that have staff based in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the relevant proportion of an employer’s levy payment will be issued to the respective devolved administration (nation).

For example, if an organisation that pays the levy has 75% of its staff based in England and 25% based in Northern Ireland, then 25% of the value of the organisation’s levy payments will be paid to Northern Irish Government. However these funds are not specifically ringfenced for use on apprenticeship training as is the case in England.

What is included in the term ‘pay bill’. Does this cover freelancers?

Your pay bill will be based on the total amount of earnings subject to Class 1 secondary (employers) National Insurance Contributions (NICs).

Earnings include anything such as wages, bonuses, commissions, and pension contributions that you pay NICs on.

In summary, it is calculated on what goes through an employer’s PAYE.

If you pay freelancers outside of PAYE (e.g. through invoices) this would not be included as part of your pay bill.

What’s the difference between an apprenticeship, an intern and work experience?

Apprenticeships are recognised formally by the Government. Apprentices must be working to a published and approved Framework or Standard (which includes mandatory off-the-job training delivered by a training provider).

Apprentices by law must have a contract of employment and be paid the appropriate minimum wage rate.

Internships are time limited work opportunities which must be paid (exceptions apply). There is no formal training or accreditation attached to an internship like there is with an apprenticeship. We have separate guidance on what constitutes an appropriate internship opportunity.

Work experience describes short opportunities (usually no longer than two weeks) that allow somebody to observe the work of an organisation and gain some basic experience/understanding of a role and/or workplace.

Our pay bill is below the £3 million threshold – we’re not affected, are we?

In this instance an employer will not be required to pay the apprenticeship levy. This does not effect a business’ ability to access and employ apprenticeships with funding for the off-the-job-training in line with the criteria identified by DfE.

We are a charity – does that make a difference?

No. Charities are subject to the same arrangements for apprenticeships as any other employer.

Who can we contact to talk to about apprenticeships and the Levy?

Up to date information about apprenticeships for employers in Northern Ireland can be found here

However, we have a role in supporting the sector around apprenticeships and can be approached with any apprenticeship query by contacting