School leavers should be expected either to get an apprenticeship or to go on to study for a university degree, David Cameron said on Monday.
Launching National Apprenticeship Week, the prime minister said it was important that pupils had a clear idea of which path they wanted to take by the time they reached school leaving age.
Speaking at a training centre in Milton Keynes he said it should be the "new norm" that they chose either an apprenticeship or a course in higher education.
"I want us to raise our ambitions as a country when it comes to this area," he said.
"I want us to have as a new norm the idea that in school everyone who can either takes that path on to university or takes that path on to an apprenticeship. You should be doing one or the other.
"We shouldn't be saying that it is OK for people somehow to leave school at 16 without seeing a really clear path - either an apprenticeship to get you those great skills, that great training that can then lead on to a degree as well, or to stay on at school and consider a university degree.
"That should be the new norm in our country. That is what we should raise our sights for, raise our goal for in Britain today."
His comments came as a new study found that fewer than one in five parents believe apprenticeships have the same status as university education.
The survey of 400 working parents by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) also showed that almost half thought apprenticeships were more appropriate for manual or blue-collar jobs.
Only one in 10 parents said apprenticeships were their preferred qualification for their children.
CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese said: "Apprenticeships give young people the chance to learn and develop skills in the context of the workplace, and enable employers to grow their own workforce and recruit from a more diverse pool of talent.
"But this new research shows that misperceptions about apprenticeships prevail, which is likely to impact the supply of potential candidates for employers that do offer apprenticeships and deter those that don't from adapting their recruitment methods."
A report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research showed that apprenticeships are forecast to contribute £3.4 billion a year to the economy through productivity gains by 2022.
The number of people completing apprenticeships is predicted to increase from 260,000 in the current financial year, to 480,000 by 2022, said the report.
A poll on Monday suggested less than one in five young people (19%) believe an apprenticeship will lead to a well-respected career.
The YouGov survey of 1,000 people aged 16 to 25, carried out in February for tradesman recommendation website RatedPeople.com, also found that 45% of those questioned agreed apprenticeships are "just a source of cheap labour for businesses".
Some 72% said A-Levels and college courses were relevant to them personally after doing GCSEs, compared to just 13% for apprenticeships, and 48% were not aware of the Government Apprenticeships scheme.
RatedPeople chief executive, Chris Havemann, said: "The UK economy is built on the backbone of skilled workmen. However, the challenge we face is attracting young people into these professions when so much emphasis is placed on university education and academia.
"What's more, with nearly a million young people unemployed, clearly not enough is being done to provide the skills needed to get young people from all backgrounds into the workplace."
Prime Minister David Cameron visits the Mercedes-Benz UK National Apprentice Academy in Milton Keynes at the start of National Apprenticeship Week.