Since being appointed skills minister last year, John Hayes has staked his political reputation on dramatically increasing the number of apprentices in the UK. With figures published last week showing growth of 58 per cent in just a year, it would appear that he has delivered.
But serious concerns have been raised that the rapid expansion has focused too heavily on adults and done little to address youth unemployment.
There has been an increase of 11,000 in the number of new apprenticeships created in the 16-19 bracket on the previous year. But this is dwarfed by the 126,000 extra over-25s who have embarked on apprenticeships, taking the total number of over-25s to 175,500 - up an incredible 250 per cent. The group now makes up 40 per cent of the total number of apprentices.
This has prompted many commentators to argue that the increase is being fuelled by apprenticeships amounting to little more than on-the-job training for people already in work.
"In other countries this training would not be described as apprenticeships," said shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden. "Where is this 250 per cent coming from? The vast majority of these are people who have previously been on Train to Gain and people already in work. It doesn't do a thing to address the lot of young people aged 16-24 who need work. This is not the real picture. In the younger age groups, the rate of increase is actually decelerating."
Concerns were also raised in a Government document leaked last week, which warned ministers "not to undermine the apprenticeship brand". Stakeholders have "registered concerns about the quality of some apprenticeships", the document said, particularly low-level apprenticeships, short courses and "the increasing number of existing (older) employees in the programme".
The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) also waded into the debate, hitting out at "inaccurate" criticisms of apprenticeships run by supermarkets Morrisons and Asda, and insisting that all approved programmes are of a high standard.
"Where the quality of apprenticeship delivery falls below the standard required, the Skills Funding Agency and the NAS will reform provision to comply," NAS chief operating officer David Way said.
Mr Hayes told TES he made no apologies for the expansion among over-25s already in work. "We need to upskill and reskill the workforce. If you don't do that now, you can never play catch-up," he said. The minister also insisted that apprentice numbers in construction were "holding up" despite economic pressures, and was delighted with the progress being made in expanding the programme. "Apprenticeships are a territory Labour would have once thought of themselves occupying. They never achieved the scale of pace or growth that we have," he said.
He called on more employers to hire apprentices to help the UK "leapfrog" international competitors.
But the criticisms levelled at the apprenticeship programme reveal the difficulties faced by ministers. Expanding the scheme quickly is a considerable challenge; addressing concerns about quality and standards is just as difficult.
If Mr Hayes wants to achieve both by the next election, he is going to have a tough task on his hands.