As employers take greater ownership of the skills agenda, it’s important to remember the qualifications of apprentices remain relevant to the sector — not just their boss’s immediate workplace needs, says Scott Waddington.

Privately-educated pupils have been warned by Girls’ School Association president Hilary French they can no longer afford to be ‘sniffy’ about apprenticeships, while MI5 and MI6 are set to recruit up to 100 apprentices in the coming year.

Chancellor George Osborne also declared recently that 20,000 new apprenticeships were to be funded over the course of the next year, and as a whole the public perception of apprenticeships has been cast in a whole new light.

At government level there has never been a greater focus on increasing the number, range and quality of apprenticeships on offer, and young talent in the UK is becoming increasingly attracted to vocational.

So as its popularity continues to rise, can the apprenticeship truly begin to rival its academic counterparts?

Industry chiefs have long maintained vocational qualifications can help address those challenges currently faced by the UK economy, and we do seem to be witnessing the first shift in perceptions required to make this a reality.

Ever more employers and educationalists are recognising the merits vocational qualifications can bring to both the organisation and the individual, while statements like those from Girls’ School Association President Ms French would support the notion that this is beginning to play out at grass roots level too.

Might this restrict the scope of the training and in turn the ability of the trainee to work elsewhere in their field, should they wish to?

As more and more prestigious organisations including GCHQ look to vocational pathways to fulfil their own skills gaps, both now and in the future, the profile of apprenticeships is no doubt set to rise further in 2014 and beyond as a result.

This is partly due to the ongoing drive to create greater investment incentives in apprenticeship training from the employer’s perspective, and MI5 will surely be great ambassadors in encouraging others to engage in similar schemes.

But there is another factor that must be taken into account during the transition, and that is the need for ongoing collaboration between employers and government to ensure the quality of training is maintained throughout this process.

Employers and training providers alike must make sure qualifications remain rigorous and comprehensive in relation to the learner’s chosen field, and are not there simply to meet the particular requirements of a candidate’s employer.

As the popularity of alternative apprenticeship formats increases, this must not get lost in the transition.

If the sole focus is on the company involved, might this restrict the scope of the training and in turn the ability of the trainee to work elsewhere in their field, should they wish to?

Apprenticeships must indeed be held in higher esteem and preserving their quality and scope will prove essential if we are to build on the prestige created in association with the likes of GCHQ.

A balanced and continuous exchange between employer and training provider can only support the rising profile of apprenticeships further and support parity of regard between vocational and academic qualifications moving forward.

In Wales, this is achieved through the stringent regulation of providers operating collaboratively to ensure qualifications available are both industry relevant, and provide young people with as comprehensive and wide a skillset as possible.

The UK Commission’s 2012 Employer Perspectives Survey shows us that employers in Wales have the highest uptake of vocational qualifications out of all the four home nations, but there is no room for complacency yet.

The expansion of opportunities for employers to recruit young people through apprenticeships is indeed transforming the way in which businesses are acquiring and developing the skills they need.

This must, however, be supported by a collaborative approach and a unified mindset — both from the employer’s and the learner’s perspective.

Scott Waddington, Wales commissioner for UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and chief executive of SA Brain