Skills minister Nick Boles has admitted that the government's apprenticeship campaign needs to "go further" after training providers expressed concern that it was making little impact on the ground.
Two months ago the government launched a major multimedia campaign to promote apprenticeships to young people in England, urging them to "Get In. Go Far". But when the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) asked hundreds of delegates at its autumn conference last week how many had been contacted by employers or young people as a result, none responded.
Stewart Segal, chief executive of the AELP, said people were concerned that the government had not learned lessons from previous ineffective campaigns. "Our experience from the past is that it's hard to turn awareness-raising into people making that first call," he said.
"Unless you follow that up with visits to employers on the ground then it doesn't normally end up increasing the number of employers offering apprenticeships. I'm sure there has been awareness-raising but it doesn't tend to get employers making the call to action."
Mr Segal said the government should put resources into helping training providers and colleges to coordinate how they follow up with employers.
Speaking to TES, Mr Boles admitted that he had already been approached with these worries and had asked officials to look at what was happening. But he added: "The most important point is that the campaign is specifically directed at young people and their parents. It is not aimed at the sector.
"There are a lot of statistics on the reach to young people and it's been pretty good and I am reassured that the campaign is hitting the target. However, I still think it needs to go further and there is a further phase coming."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said that interim findings from the campaign were "encouraging", with more than 700,000 views of the advertisement on YouTube and a "significant" increase in the number of visitors to the apprenticeships website.
Further television and press advertising was planned for the new year, she added, to be supported by a poster campaign and "significant" social and digital media activity.
Some training providers think the government deserves credit for the campaign. Frank McMahon, managing director of Yorkshire and Humberside-based YH Training Services, said: "I don't think you can look for a direct correlation between the campaign and apprenticeship numbers; it's the awareness-raising that's important.
"A significant number of young people aren't told about apprenticeships at school, and there's a still a marketing job to do to explain what apprenticeships are and what they cover."
The need for a national awareness-raising campaign is highlighted in the latest government apprenticeship figures. Provisional data for 2013-14 shows an almost 13 per cent drop in the number of all-age apprenticeship starts compared with 2012-13, down from 495,100 to 432,400.
The number of 16- to 18-year-olds starting apprenticeships rose by 5 per cent to 117,800, but among 19- to 24-year-olds the figure fell by 3 per cent to 156,900 and 25-plus apprenticeship starts plummeted by 29 per cent to 157,700.
Although the figures, published last week, are provisional, if they are confirmed it would be the second year in a row that the overall number of apprenticeship starts has fallen.
Jennifer Coupland, deputy director of the joint Department for EducationBIS apprenticeship unit, told delegates at the AELP conference that the government was still on course for 2 million apprenticeship starts during the current Parliament.
She said independent training providers deserved a "pat on the back" for helping to deliver this, but added that some "grim facts" were hiding "under the bonnet" of the apprenticeship programme. According to the Sutton Trust, fewer than 20 per cent of employers offered apprenticeships and a fifth of small firms could not find a framework to meet their needs, she said.