A scheme launched by the Tories in 1995 is proving to be far more than a tradesman's entrance to the working world. Warwick Mansell reports.
Practically-minded teenagers celebrating good GCSE results this week are being encouraged to consider a vocational alternative to the traditional academic route.
Modern Apprenticeships offer school-leavers the chance to get a thorough grounding in industry or the service sector, while at the same time earning money.
The Modern Apprenticeship scheme has grown in popularity since it was introduced in 1995 by a Conservative government concerned that the once-popular route had declined with the downturn in manufacturing industry.
A total of 135,000 young people are now benefiting from the on-the-job training offered by the scheme. While a majority are in the traditionally male preserves of engineering, motor and other industries, there has been an explosion in the number of apprenticeships in new areas such as business administration and the service sector. As a result 40 per cent of apprentices are now female.
Some industry experts say that the schemes may offer better career prospects for many people than staying on at school for A- levels and further academic study. However, according to a recent report by the Centre for Economic Performance, the profile of apprenticeships has changed considerably since 1995. Entrants over the age of 18, often with A-levels or even degrees, now outnumber 16 to 18-year-olds for whom the scheme was originally devised.
One man who is convinced of their worth is Terry Holloway, group support executive at the Marshall Group, Cambridge's largest independent company.The engineering company, which employs 3,200 people, has run an apprenticeship scheme since 1920.
Apprentices taken on at 17 are paid around pound;10,000 a year. As well as on-the-job training in everything from health and safety to the hand-eye co-ordination necessary to operate machinery, apprentices are sent one day a week to a local further education college. They are expected to emerge with a national vocational qualification at level 3.
Apprentices taken on at the end of the three years' training could expect to earn around pound;20,000 a year, including overtime and bonuses, said Mr Holloway.
By their 30s, former apprentices who continued to build on their training could be earning pound;30,000-pound;40,000 a year. The company also supports those who, having completed their apprenticeship, want to study on a day-release basis for a degree.
Mr Holloway said this could add up to an attractive career option for bright but not academically minded people who might otherwise be pressed into taking A-levels and going to university, only to build up a debt and emerge with purely academic qualifications - if they even completed the course.
Perhaps the best advertisement for the vocational route is those who have made it to the top. Sir Ralph Robins, chairman of Rolls Royce, Tony Edwards, former chief executive of the leading aerospace company the Dowty Group, and even Mr Holloway himself, are all former apprentices.
But despite industry's enthusiasm - underpinned to some extent by almost a fourfold increase in training places since the scheme was introduced - Britain still only offers apprenticeships as a post-school option for one in 10 of its young people. This compares with two-thirds of young people in Germany, for example.
For more information on Modern Apprenticeships, contact your local training and enterprise council or careers service, or visit the website of the National Training Organisation National Council at www.nto-nc.org
* One in 10 British youngsters takes up an apprenticeship, compared with two-thirds in Germany;
* More than half are aged 18 or over;
* Forty per cent of apprentices are girls;
* In 1997, just 192 girls started apprenticeships in engineering, compared with 5,708 boys;
* In the same year, 2,149 girls took up hairdressing traineeships, compared with just 162 boys;
* Only 2 per cent of youngsters starting apprenticeships in 1996 came from an ethnic minoritiy background. The electricity industry and agriculture failed to provide a single place for minorities.