Lack of skills locks youth into low wages
However only half the trainees receive any sort of certificate and even fewer than that - 40 per cent - manage the full national vocational qualification level 1 that the system appears to have promised them.
According to a report this week from the training and enterprise councils' national aouncil, there are 230,000 18 to 20-year-olds who do not have a job or a place in education or training. This is one of the central issues that Sir Ron Dearing will address in his review of 16-19 education, due to appear in its final form at the end of this month.
This leaves the country woefully short of the national targets for school-leavers. Worse still, Sir Ron appears to believe that a substantial number of young people never stand a chance of getting an adequate training, let alone a qualification.
Many small employers, fearful of the cost and of staff leaving when they become better qualified, are reluctant to enter them for NVQs. Moreover, even where NVQs are gained, they are related to a student's narrow ability in a particular job at a particular workplace. The skills prized by the economy at large are much more general, says Sir Ron. And he believes this general competence is lacking.
Groups such as the National Institute for Economic and Social Research are convinced that the inability, for example, to carry out basic mathematical calculations is damaging Britain's ability to become a producer of high-quality goods - machine tools in particular - with wages to match. Instead, they say, we are locked into a low-quality, low-wage manufacturing system with poor training to match.
Sir Ron's proposed solution is a wholesale re-shaping of youth training, the first since 1983 when the Youth Training Scheme replaced the widely disliked Youth Opportunities Scheme, which was accused of merely mopping up the unemployed.
Under Sir Ron's proposals, the Youth Training label disappears, to be replaced by "national traineeship" (a phrase closer to the respected "apprenticeship").
Second, traineeships will have a broader academic content. Trainees will be expected to display "key skills" (previously known as core skills) in communication, number and information technology, as well as the more general abilities required by employers. This aspect of training will be put into practice by colleges, establishing the sort of joint college-workplace structure which has long been in use in Germany.
Third, the "traineeship" award, which will lead to NVQ certificates, will also be devised to be comparable with A-levels and GNVQs. The traineeships will be structured in four levels, allowing progression from "entry" to "advanced" level.
Sir Ron has another trick up his sleeve for motivating those who may otherwise end up with no qualifications: pupils will be allowed to choose a clearly vocational route at 14, with work placement linked to attendance at colleges instead of school.
Such ideas, by now widely leaked, have been welcomed. "This is very, very helpful, particularly for pulling up young people who are at the lower end of the spectrum into the national education and training targets," said Anne Weinstock of Rathbone CI, a Manchester-based charity which trains vulnerable teenagers.
Alan Smithers, professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University, said: "There is a crucial gap in what we are providing in terms of systematic training leading to employment. This would appear to be a very promising answer. Youth Training doesn't work. The current system is often little more than a means of parking young people. You might say that a lot of money is going in effect to reduce unemployment."
His analysis is shared by Paul Convery, director of the Unemployment Unit, an independent research group. "The scheme is trying to do too many things. It's trying to train young people. And it's trying to substitute for what was the benefits system. It's still seen as a welfare substitute."
And this issue is perhaps one of the biggest problems: something that Sir Ron cannot hope to address single-handed.
If employers are not willing to invest in training - and their lack of support for modern apprenticeships seems to back that view - why, asks Professor Smithers, should they be any more prepared to help make this scheme work?
"There are two important questions," he said, "What's in it for young people and what's in it for employers? It relies on a level of co-operation between employers and education that hasn't existed in the past - and on employers putting some money forward. Employers like the idea of national requirements because it gives them more power. But if they award NVQs people might want more pay or take themselves off for other jobs."