The Prime Minister has opened the bidding for the “Employer Ownership of Skills” pilot and announced a second round of funding for higher apprenticeships.

Employers can now bid for up to £250 million of direct public funding, bypassing colleges and training providers in order to deliver innovative apprenticeships and vocational training.

David Cameron, speaking on the second day of National Apprenticeship Week, said: “By making apprenticeships a gold standard option for ambitious young people, we are sending a message that technical excellence is as highly valued as academic prowess,”

“And by focusing investment where it is most needed to deliver sustainable growth and offering real ownership of vocational training to employers, we are equipping businesses with the skills they need to rebalance our economy and distribute opportunity more widely.”

Mr Cameron also announced the second round of bidding for the higher apprenticeship fund, worth up to £6 million and aimed at developing new schemes in the aerospace, energy and renewable technologies industries.

Skills Minister John Hayes said: “Clarity of policy and certainty of purpose in Government has delivered a record number of apprenticeships and driven up standards at every level.

“We must now go further to create new pathways to excellence for the brightest and best young people and help employers to secure the high-quality skills they need.”

The Prime Minister confirmed that small firms would be offered a £1,500 incentive, starting this week,  to hire their first apprentice aged between 16 and 18.

“I’m delighted to underline our commitment to strengthen our economy by helping employers take on apprentices and ensure that the UK workforce has the skills that businesses need,” Mr Cameron said.

“Under this Government apprenticeship starts are increasing at a record rate, with improvements across the age range, in all sectors, throughout the country.”

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has launched a prospectus today explaining how businesses can bid for the first £50 million of the “Employer Ownership of Skills” pilot.

Charlie Mayfield, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES)said: “I believe that to improve both the quality and sustainability of vocational skills, we need a shift in the balance of power away from government and towards employers.

“They are the people who really know what their business needs to grow and thrive.”

The UKCES says successful bids should include an increase in the number of people taking part in vocational training, such as apprenticeships, and make a significant impact on employer productivity and growth.

Employer proposals need to be submitted by April 26, 2012, before final decisions are given in June and July.

(The UKCES prospectus can be downloaded here.)