Career prospects in East Anglia have taken a new turn in the past two years since the arrival of a team to promote modern apprenticeships. The team of learning advisers from West Suffolk College has been touring schools and working with employers and the young people's advice service, Connexions, to point out the advantages of the apprentice route.
And Martin Wagner, the college's assistant principal, feels the investment has paid off. In 1999, 193 young people joined up; by last year, that number had jumped to 350.
"There is increasing interest," he says. "The local learning and skills council and the colleges have put greater emphasis on MAs so more youngsters are aware of what they are."
Havering College, in north-east London, started offering modern apprenticeships as recently as two years ago and now has 235 people on programmes from motor vehicle maintenance to accountancy.
Theresa McEwan, Havering's skills for work manager, expects numbers to continue rising. "I would imagine this coming year we will be heavily oversubscribed," she says.
Such comments will be music to the ears of ministers and the Learning and Skills Council, which aim to get 28 per cent of young people aged under 22 into such programmes by 2004.
The young people normally work for an employer four days a week with a fifth day in college. Training is on and off the job and includes communication, ICT and number. Havering has already taken steps to reduce the number of apprentices in college by sending assessors out to meet them.
"We will have to be more innovatory as we continue to grow," says Ms McEwan.
Martin Lamb, assistant director of policy and development at the LSC, is confident that the 28 per cent target will be reached next summer. To hit it , 175,000 young people would need to enrol. Last year the figure was 125,000, but an increase to 150,000 is expected later this year. "According to our projections, we are within 1 per cent of hitting the target," he says.
In spite of increasing enrolments, not everything in the apprenticeships garden is rosy. The Association of Colleges has pointed out that only 51 per cent of them gain NVQ at level 2 or 3.
Mr Lamb accepts that key skills are a problem. "We are clear on the need to look at the assessment modules of key skills to encourage young people who don't like pen and paper tests to do it by other routes," he says.
FE colleges are responsible for about one in six apprenticeships; the rest are delivered by private trainers. A survey by the Association of Learning Providers shows that only 49 per cent of apprentices turn up for key skills tests; about two-thirds of these pass. In some cases, says Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the association, employers refuse to release apprentices to sit tests. "Key skills are absolutely right for development but independent testing is not working," he says.
Modern apprenticeships were launched at level 3 (A-level age range) nearly 10 years ago to breathe new life into old-style training. Four years ago, a foundation version became available at level 2 (GCSE). Mr Hoyle agrees with extending modern apprenticeships into non-traditional areas so they are no longer seen as just schemes for engineers and builders, but says work is needed in sectors such as retail and hospitality, where there is a large turnover of workers.
"The concept is spot-on, but the model is not for many of the new sectors," he says. "We need to look at sector differences and develop a product that works in different sectors."
The AoC, which queries whether the 28 per cent target will be reached, has pointed to the problem of finding small and medium-sized employers who are willing to allow their apprentices time off. "Employers are not persuaded of the importance of providing places in the volume that the targets assume," says Dr John Brennan, the association's director of FE development.
West Suffolk College finds that the availability of placements often depends on the local labour market, but the area in which it is encountering real difficulty is in the construction trades, including plumbing.
Colleges are also waiting to see whether the Government will allow over-25s to join modern apprenticeships programmes for the first time. Such a restriction has already been lifted in Wales. "Experience suggests there is a demand from over-25s if the policy allowed them to be recruited," says Dr Brennan.
Such issues are likely to be among those debated by the new National Modern Apprenticeships Taskforce, launched last month by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Chaired by Sir Roy Gardner, chief executive of energy firm Centrica, it will also look at encouraging more girls to gain modern apprenticeships.