The scheme follows the Government's pledge to train 10,000 more nurses, therapists and key health professionals each year by 2004. Without this level of training, after resignation and retirement, growth targets will not be met.
Aimed at 16 to 24-year-olds, it uses the resources of further and higher education and the NHS to attract students and give them a wide range of practical hospital experience before starting their undergraduate training.
A challenging new course - combining ward experience with college studies - is exploring alternative routes for the health service to recruit, train and retain staff.
During their first term as NHS cadets, 13 Hopwood Hall College students have already worked on Rochdale Infirmary's wards, developing their skills in communicating with and caring for patients.
Early practical experience was one of the main attractions of the course for students. And by the end of the two years, they will have a BTEC in health studies, an NVQ and a key skills qualification. High-fliers will also be exempted from the first six months of a nursing or other health profession degree.
NHS cadets are part of a national scheme to improve recruitment and professional development in healthcare by developing greater co-operation between NHS Trusts, colleges and universities through regional umbrella organisations called Workforce Development Confederations (WDCs).
The Hopwood Hall course - also being piloted at Bury and Salford Colleges - has been developed by the Greater Manchester WDC.
"Co-operation and communication have been the key," says Pauline Giddins. As the course's clinical educator she has experience of both ward nursing and FE teaching. Seconded to Hopwood Hall from Rochdale Healthcare Trust, she teaches the students in college two days a week and is with them in the hospital for the other three.
They also have a course tutor, Gerralyn Ingram, and a volunteer "buddy" on the hospital staff who is not involved with their training and assessment, but who can be a friendly shoulder to lean on.
The course is funded by the Learning and Skills Council, while Rochdale Healthcare Trust gives students a weekly payment of pound;30, rising to pound;60 in the second year.
All cadets' academic work is done in college and for the rest of the week they put in a seven-and a-half-hour day at the hospital. "We felt out of place at first," said student Natalie Quigley, "but we had to get used to it", and after six weeks' orientation they were serving meals, feeding patients, bed-bathing them and setting up drips.
Cadet Kirsty Rowell was nervous when she performed her first blood sugar test, but now the students are beginning to feel useful and to enjoy the caring aspects of the profession. "We can help the patients and we've got more time to talk to them than the nurses have," she said.
With most cadets only 16 or 17, hospital staff have had to get used to having much younger people on the wards than usual. Pauline Giddins sees it as part of her job to convince the Trust that the students are useful, but many of today's experienced nurses were trained on the old cadet scheme and, she says, "look back on it with fondness".
Kirsty's aunt, now a ward sister, was once a cadet, "and now she's thrilled that I'm one too," she said.