The vast majority of small Scottish businesses are not taking on apprentices, a startling report has found.
Bureaucracy, cost and a perception that apprentices are on the lowest rung of ability - amid several other factors - are causing employers to ignore the Modern Apprenticeship scheme.
The report, commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland, is billed as the first definitive nationwide investigation into why small employers are unable to take on apprentices. It finds that only 17 per cent of the 542 small businesses surveyed have hired an apprentice in the past three years.
The biggest barrier is a lack of information: 70 per cent of firms which had not taken on an apprentice cited a lack of understanding about how to get involved and lack of clarity about the role of public sector bodies.
FSB Scottish policy convener Andy Willox called for "a real, co-ordinated drive to help firms looking to take on a modern apprentice navigate the system and find the right person for the job".
The report, which also draws on case studies of eight employers, identifies widespread misgivings about ability and the amount of time spent with employers.
Some "felt that Modern Apprenticeships were only promoted to young people who have no other options", despite minimum entry requirements matching those for college and, in some cases, university.
Cost is a concern for more than half of firms. Employers are uneasy about reduced productivity when senior staff are required to train apprentices, as well as the strain of paying wages, even while at college. Often employers are not aware of the financial contribution made by the public sector.
Businesses in the building industry said the scheme was not relevant because too much time was spent out of the workplace. Construction and engineering apprentices spend three days a week in college in the first year, which makes it "difficult for employers to gauge how well the apprentice is fitting into the workplace".
There were calls from employers for more flexible courses through a modular approach, which would allow them to select those units appropriate to their business.
Of the 17 per cent of employers who have taken on apprentices recently, half think one of the main advantages is meeting a skills shortage, while most believe apprentices can improve their business in some way.
"Apprenticeships are good for the apprentice, good for the business and good for the economy," said Mr Willox. "But too many small firms wouldn't even know where to start in recruiting one."
Labour leader Iain Gray said the 7,800 new apprenticeships in last year's Scottish budget should be "a floor not a ceiling", but that this would only happen if companies had more information and bureaucratic barriers were removed.
Labour's economy and skills spokesman, John Park, said the first year of an apprenticeship was the most costly for businesses, and that the Government "must consider wage subsidies to encourage smaller employers to take on apprentices".
A Government spokeswoman said measures to help small businesses with the cost of taking on an apprentice were being finalised, with an announcement due shortly. She also highlighted "overwhelming uptake" of two recent schemes: one gives employers pound;2,000 for "adopting" a redundant apprentice, while life sciences employers were offered two apprentices for the cost of one.