The coalition government has “downgraded” apprenticeships and taken Britain “backwards” on productivity, Labour has claimed.
Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said Labour would "ensure that apprenticeships are a trusted gold standard once again".
Speaking during a Commons opposition day debate on apprenticeships, he said the number of 19- to 24-year-olds starting an apprenticeship had fallen by more than 6,000 in the last year, and 19-24 apprenticeship starts were currently falling in every single region outside London.
To address the skills mismatch, he said, Britain was in need of a “major expansion” of high-quality vocational and technical education and apprenticeships in particular.
Labour, Mr Umunna added, had “rescued apprenticeships from the scrap heap” and more than quadrupled starts from a "woeful" 65,000 in 1997 to 280,000 in 2010.
Referring to the current government's two million apprenticeship starts, he said: "I don't think there's any point boasting about numbers if your apprenticeships are not of sufficient quality.”
Mr Umunna asked how many were the result of "rebadging" existing on-the-job training. The largest percentage rise in apprenticeships under the government he argued was among the over-60s – up 520 per cent.
He said: "Overall the share of apprentices who are under 25 has fallen from 84 per cent 2009-10 to 64 per cent, and the share under 19 [has] fallen from 43 per cent in the last year of the Labour government to 28 per cent under the coalition. For all the boasts there has been some jiggery-pokery with the numbers here."
It was “totally unacceptable” that half of large employers did not offer any apprenticeships at all, he added.
Under Labour’s plans, all apprenticeships would last a minimum of two years and be level 3 qualifications. Mr Umunna said this would "ensure that apprenticeships are a trusted gold standard once again and address the way they have been downgraded under this government".
Replying for the government, business secretary Vince Cable said ministers took a "serious political hit" on university tuition fees "but did the right thing" as universities were now properly funded as more money has been invested in apprenticeships.
The Liberal Democrat told MPs that the adult skills budget would have faced 40 per cent cuts if Labour’s plans had been followed, which would have led to cuts to apprenticeships.
“We took a serious political hit on higher education but did the right thing and ensured that universities were properly funded and we got a fair repayment system and we made the decision to invest more, not less, in apprenticeships and that is why we have now got where we are."
Mr Cable said the government had delivered increased volume and quality of apprenticeships.