The latest figures show that the Government is well short of its target of 28 per cent of young people beginning a Modern Apprenticeship by age 22 by 2004. This year 150,000 are expected to start apprenticeships, but this needs to rise to 175,000 to keep on target.
Chancellor Gordon Brown and Education Secretary Charles Clarke this week launched a new task force for MAs, saying that economic prosperity depended on tackling skills shortages. "Pushing a teenager into the world of work today without any qualification is to put them at lifetime risk of poverty, failure and wasted potential," declared Mr Brown.
The task force of industrialists, company executives and private trainers, led by Sir Roy Gardner, chief executive of energy giant Centrica, will be trying to drum up more support from employers.
The Association of Colleges immediately put forward its own agenda. It said the qualification framework was wrong - only 51 per cent of apprentices achieved a full NVQ at level 2 or 3 and key skills were a major barrier.
Only 15 per cent of staff outside colleges engaged in work-based training had appropriate qualifications. And smaller companies found it difficult to give apprentices time off for studies.
David Gibson, AoC chief executive, said: "The failing levels of recruitment into MA schemes in many cases and the limited success in achieving the MA framework suggest that so far, the product on offer is not appealing enough to young people or their employers.
"It is vital to get this offer right to provide a real ladder of opportunity for young people with vocational talent."
The Engineering Employers' Federation said funding was the problem. MAs could cost an employer up to pound;50,000. They received a mere pound;14,560 for 16 to 18-year-olds, only about half that for 19 to 24-year-olds, and nothing for those over 24.
Bryan Sanderson, chair of the Learning and Skills Council which runs the MA programme, said there were fundamental skills gaps in retail, construction, health and the leisure industry. There was no shortage of demand for skilled people and there should be a valid, respected route for young people through work and training to the highest levels achieved by our continental competitors, he said.
But we may soon have enough plumbers. Around 6,000 new plumbers are needed annually and the LSC has signed up nearly 11,000.