It's tougher than Oxbridge
Students face more competition in getting on to some apprenticeship programmes than in applying to Oxford or Cambridge.
Employers need to offer more support because a shortage of places was making apprenticeships among the hardest courses in the country to join, MPs were told.
This is despite government plans to guarantee an apprenticeship for all qualified school-leavers. But there are only 400 British Gas apprenticeships, with 6,000 teenagers applying for them - a one in 15 chance of success. The building industry reports 50,000 applicants for 9,000 places - a less than one in five chance.
At Oxford and Cambridge last year there were fewer than four applicants for each place, with 28,000 students seeking 7,200 places.
Andy Powell, chief executive of the Edge foundation, told the children, schools and families select committee: "It's harder to get an apprenticeship with a big, well-known firm than it is to get into Oxford or Cambridge.
"There are a lot of young people looking for something other than straight classroom learning.
"It's just this problem of getting employers looking for young people. There's this blockage."
There are no national figures for all apprenticeship applications, but a pilot of the matching service in one area, intended to help teenagers find a suitable company, had 17,000 applicants for just 6,000 places - a ratio of 2.8 to one.
By contrast, there were 571,000 university applicants this year for 423,000 places, meaning a school-leaver is more than twice as likely to get into university as they are to find an apprenticeship.
John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, has admitted that some teenagers are heading to higher education when an apprenticeship would be a better option. "There are certainly young people who currently go to university who would have been better off on an advanced apprenticeship," he said.
"We've been in danger of making it sound as if university is the only real aspiration."
By 2013, the Government intends to guarantee an apprenticeship for all students who wish to pursue one and have suitable prior qualifications, requiring an estimated 150,000 extra places.
Increased numbers of apprenticeships in the public sector will also expand the available options.
This summer, Mr Denham also cut bureaucratic requirements for employers running apprenticeships in response to claims that red tape and lack of flexibility were holding businesses back from offering training places.
But Simon Bartley, chief executive of UK Skills, said there was a danger that local job markets might not be able to provide the apprenticeships that students wanted to pursue. He said if a teenager wanted to work in a particular industry but there were no jobs available, they might be forced into travelling unreasonable distances.
"We risk going to back to Lord Tebbit's `on your bike'," he said.
Nick Edwards, vice-principal of Lewisham College, which itself employs 32 apprentices, said employers should have cash incentives to provide apprenticeships.
Programme-led apprenticeships, in which students start their work in college or with a training provider before they find an employer, could not replace the need for places in industry, Mr Edwards said. "Otherwise you just get a bottleneck of disappointed people who can't get a job," he said.
"We are a big vocational college, but I send more people to uni- versity than I can get on apprenticeships. We can't get enough apprenticeships because we can't get the employers."