Employers may remain frustrated by the literacy and numeracy levels of young people, but they are growing more confident in the value of apprenticeships, a survey published this week suggests. More than half of businesses are planning to expand recruitment of apprentices, according to the latest survey carried out jointly by the CBI and publishing giant Pearson.
But the survey also found that a third of businesses are dissatisfied with school- and college-leavers' basic skills, with 42 per cent having to pay for remedial training to bridge the skills gap. The results show that there has been no improvement in businesses' perception of state education over the past decade.
There was positive news for skills minister John Hayes, with 63 per cent of the 542 firms surveyed saying that they are engaging with the apprenticeship programme. This is up from 48 per cent five years ago, perhaps not surprising given the huge expansion of the scheme by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) since the coalition came to power.
More encouragingly, 58 per cent of employers said that they intended to expand their apprenticeship programmes in the next three years.
The news came on the same day as the announcement that entrepreneur Doug Richard is to lead a government-commissioned independent review into the future of apprenticeships.
While there can be little doubt that BIS' ambitions to grow the programme have been realised - new apprenticeship starts in 2010-11 increased by almost two-thirds to 457,000 - concerns remain that it is more focused on quantity than quality. Criticisms that some apprenticeships amount to little more than the rebranding of existing training have only grown louder since a BBC Panorama documentary in April revealed that almost 40 per cent of Morrisons' employees were classed as apprentices.
Mr Richard has been asked to look at how apprenticeships can best meet the needs of businesses and the wider economy, which learners and employers should be targeted and what the components of a high-quality apprenticeship should be.
"For our economy to recover and flourish, we need a workforce that possesses the requisite skills of 21st-century commerce and industry. A strong apprenticeship programme is essential in delivering that," he said.
But if critics of the scheme were hoping for a shift in focus from those in work to those seeking employment, they could be left disappointed. In a blog on the BIS website, Mr Richard was at pains to stress the importance of reskilling employees.
"I am optimistic that apprenticeships can serve a much broader function than we currently imagine, and that they offer a great deal of personal value. Not only do they give people a ladder into employment . but they also help a lot of people stay relevant in a world that is evolving rapidly," he said.
Education secretary Michael Gove acknowledged that there are "still serious issues" surrounding apprenticeships. "It's great that the numbers taking up apprenticeships have grown. But there are still serious issues - there is still too much bureaucracy getting in the way of small firms taking people on, too much money appears to be going to middle men and the quality of some vocational qualifications taken by apprentices is still not good enough. Doug will help us get that right," he said.
On the issue of bureaucracy, the business world would seem to agree. The CBIPearson report found that, despite the announcement by BIS in November of plans to cut red tape, only 6 per cent of employers had noticed an improvement.
Both government and business will be hoping that Mr Richard can find at least some of the answers they are looking for.
89% of organisations with more than 5,000 employees offer apprenticeships
22% of organisations with fewer than 50 employees offer apprenticeships
Action businesses want from government to persuade them to take on more apprentices:
46% want qualification programmes that are more relevant to business needs
37% want government support for firms to train more apprentices than they need
36% want greater flexibility for employers to design bespoke frameworks
34% want more suitably qualified and motivated young people to apply
28% want reductions in bureaucracy.