10/03/2013 17:39 GMT | Updated 10/05/2013 06:12 BST

Our Compelling Need for More - And Better - Apprenticeships

There is a compelling need for more - and better - youth apprenticeships. Long-term youth unemployment is rising as fast as university tuition fees, yet employers are complaining of a lack of skilled labour.

This is not a paradox. It is because there is a black hole of no education and no work-related training into which over a quarter of a million young people are falling every year.

Apprenticeship numbers are deceptive. Most "apprentices" are well into their 20s, and are in reality mainstream employees. Seventy per cent of apprentices were working for the same company prior to becoming an apprentice.

Apprenticeships must be more than a re-branding of in-work training if they are going to have a substantive impact on the future economy and the life chances of our young people. Last year fewer than 130,000 19-year-olds, out of a total of 780,000, were in an apprenticeship. The need to rejuvenate our apprenticeship system for young people is clear.

Now, thanks to the Richard Review (published in November 2012), we have the beginnings of a plan to make it happen. Richard recommends one apprenticeship qualification per occupation (rather than the current 11,775 currently meeting public funding criteria) - to be devised by employers.

He recommends a minimum standard of numeracy and literacy to be an integral part of assessment. He recommends a competence test at the end of the scheme must be required - more akin to a driving test than the current modular system which leaves many apprenticeships incomplete.

I support all these sensible proposals. We need far more youth apprenticeships on the Richard model. Many firms are leading the way - Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and Network Rail all provide models of best practice. UCAS, who currently manage university admissions nationwide, have come forward and said that they would be happy to run a similar system for apprenticeships.

This could be valuable in raising the profile of apprenticeships and effectively advertising vacancies nationwide. A Whitehall apprenticeship scheme is in development - it must be launched as soon as possible and become a gold standard in the public sector.

There are two other key issues. First, higher level apprentices. Barely half even of the 126,000 apprentices under the age of 19 are studying at the equivalent of A level or higher. We need far more higher level apprenticeships, especially in engineering, where there is an acute shortage of graduates.

Secondly, apprenticeships need to last a decent length of time. Over recent years, almost half of all apprenticeships have lasted a year or less - many a matter of weeks. No university would award a degree on this basis. Apprenticeships should not be dumbed down either.

Only one third of large employers and one in 10 SMEs offer apprenticeships. Much of the public sector also offers few apprenticeships. A revolution is needed in the supply of youth apprenticeships, both quality and quantity, with employers in the public and private sector doing more on their own account, and with government and employers working in more inventive partnership.

Trade unions also have a part to play, promoting and supporting apprentices in the workplace. Some of the most exciting work being done by the Unions is in the area of training and apprenticeships - such as the brilliant UnionLearn project being run by the TUC. All partners in the workplaces have a key role to play in training a workforce fit for the future.