Government action on the apprenticeship programme isn’t doing enough to address the UK skills gap, says Liam Byrne, shadow skills minister.

For three years, Britain has been trapped in an economy where wages have grown slowly, and prices have grown fast. Long-term unemployment is up. Youth unemployment is above 900,000. Yet all over Britain firms say they can’t get the skills they need.

We need real action to grow new jobs with better wages, not just to the lucky few but to all. This is why we need to grow the apprenticeship programme, but instead the government is shrinking it.

Today, our apprenticeship system faces three big problems.

First off, there just aren’t enough apprenticeships to go round. When it is harder to get an apprenticeship with Jaguar Land Rover than it is to get into an Oxford college, then we need more.

England has relatively low levels of apprenticeships compared with some of our main competitors. Australia, Austria, Germany and Switzerland all have between three to four times more apprentices as England.

But the overall number of apprenticeship starts has fallen on the year.

We now have fewer young people starting an apprenticeship than at the time of the last election.

Just to help, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has bungled its most recent figures — these show that apprenticeship starts have fallen by more than 40,000, but BIS has admitted that the figures aren’t reliable because of data collection issues.

The government just can’t afford to be letting down our young people at a time when so many are out of work.

Second, the apprenticeship brand has been badly tarnished under David Cameron. We’ve seen in-work training rebadged as apprenticeships and a spike in the numbers of apprenticeships of short duration and of poor quality.

More than half of the increase in apprenticeships between 2010 and 2012 was in level two apprenticeships. One-in-five apprenticeships lasts for less than six months; and, according to the government’s own research, one-in-five apprentices report receiving neither on nor off the job training as part of their apprenticeship. And a shocking 29 per cent receive less pay than they are legally entitled to.

Third, employers — particularly small businesses — find the apprenticeship system mind-blowingly complicated. According to the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey, 41 per cent of employers say they would become more involved in the apprenticeship programme if qualifications were more relevant to business needs. Just under a third of employers say that reductions in bureaucracy would encourage them to get more involved. The key issue is that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are creating jobs five times faster than big business — but only a quarter of these firms offer apprenticeships.

Labour’s Skills Taskforce recommended that doubling the number of apprenticeship offered by employers should be a national mission. That needs to involve establishing a ‘something-for-something’ deal with employers — offering employer-led sector bodies more control over skills funding and standards, provided they create more high quality apprenticeships in their sectors and supply chains.

The government’s current pilots for entirely employer-led design run the risk of leading to narrow training that meets the needs of employers but isn’t transferable; sector bodies are likely to ensure qualifications are transferable.

We also need to re-establish apprenticeships as gold-standard qualifications. This means working towards a situation where all apprenticeships are at level three or above, and last for a minimum of two years, with at least a day week of off-the-job training.

But we won’t stop there. We need an ‘earn while you learn’ revolution. That means exploring radical ideas now being tested by pioneering councils throughout the country.

In Manchester, training providers have launched a UCAS-style early application system for apprenticeships.

In Leeds, the council and Leeds College have set up an Apprenticeship Agency, designed to tackle SMEs’ reluctance to take on the risk of hiring an apprentice. Others are telling us about ideas to build new strong links between apprenticeships and university degrees. The competitiveness of our economy depends on ideas like this.

National Apprenticeship Week supplement

National Apprenticeship Week supplement