A MAJOR drive to persuade more young people to take up modern apprenticeships has been signalled by the Executive.
Ministers are clearly becoming worried that they may undershoot their target of creating 20,000 modern apprenticeships in Scotland by 2003, a key ingredient in the coalition's skills and lifelong learning strategy. Changes are expected shortly to make the figure easier to achieve.
At the end of March, there were a total of 13,954 modern apprentices in Scotland but there are signs that adding to these numbers will be an uphill struggle. There is particular concern that very few girls between the ages of 18 and 24, the target cohort, seem to be interested: only 2,354, according to the latest figures.
Another inhibiting factor is that three out of five apprentices are in the traditional male-dominated industries of construction, engineering, motor vehicles and electrical installation. Not only are places in these sectors harder to come by because of changes in the labour market, but their popularity also reinforces the gender imbalance; only 23 of the 2,767 apprentices in construction, for example, are girls.
Trish Godman, the Labour backbencher, demanded to know during parliamentary question time last week why this could not have been foreseen when modern apprenticeships were on the drawing board. Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, agreed the issues could have been more effectively tackled at that stage.
Mr McLeish said: "There is a traditional approach to the placing of young women in modern apprenticships. That has to be changed. There is massive under-representation when we see such differential figures. We should do something about it."
Efforts to encourage more girls into modern apprenticeships had to be accompanied by parallel strategies such as ensuring more women took up careers in science or started their own businesses. "The same prevailing prejudices that exist in other parts of the economy affct modern apprenticeships," Mr McLeish told MSPs.
The enterprise agencies will be given responsibility for a campaign aimed at persuading girls to become apprentices and at widening the occupational base of the scheme. But Eddie Frizzell, head of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Department, effectively acknowledged during a recent appearance before the Parliament's audit committee that there is now more competition from two other Government objectives which are essentially fishing from the same pool - persuading more youngsters to stay on at school and getting 40,000 extra students into FE colleges by 2002.
Mr Frizzell added, however, that the target for modern apprenticeships, which are aimed at able youngsters as a work-based alternative to college or university, must be made more deliverable. This would require adjustments to the scheme, including changes to the eligibility criteria.
He also told MSPs that more consistency in funding by the local enterprise companies would be necessary, a point taken up during last week's exchanges by John Swinney, the SNP's deputy leader who chairs the Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee.
Mr McLeish said: "We are not taking proper cognisance of the differential investment throughout the country."
Attempts to encourage the more able to sign on as apprentices and plug skill gaps in key areas of the economy are also being hampered by the fact that modern apprenticeships are intended for those capable of a Scottish or National Vocational Qualification at level III or above (the equivalent of Higher).
This is also the group likeliest to aim for college or university and the recent report by the National Audit Office on the Skillseekers programme in lowland Scotland revealed that Scottish Enterprise had consistently failed to reach its targets for level III achievement, further reinforcing ministerial worries that the target for modern apprentices may also be out of reach.