"Rip up the rule book." That was the advice from Labour's economy and skills spokesman John Park, speaking last week at a national conference on apprenticeships.
Mr Park, himself a former apprentice electrician at the Rosyth dockyard, said the economic conditions were so exceptional that unprecedented action was called for.
The "rule" to which he was referring in particular was the funding arrangements which gave more money to 16 to 19-year-old apprentices than to adults. This disadvantages industries which draw their recruits primarily from the over-20s.
Meantime, Mr Park is planning to introduce an apprenticeship bill into Parliament, which will establish a statutory right to an apprenticeship for all 16 to 18 year olds. But he revealed that "the lawyers are running all over it" to make sure the bill complies with the responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament, which has competence over training but not employment matters.
He acknowledged that the recession was making employers nervous about investment and taking long-term decisions, leading to funding in skills being cut back.
This is happening at a time when the budget negotiations between the SNP and Labour led to a government commitment to increase the number of apprentices next year by 7,800, bringing the total to 18,500. This is a 73 per cent increase costing Pounds 16 million extra, leading many to doubt whether it is achievable.
There was support at the conference for removing the condition that people must be employed to qualify for an apprenticeship, which does not apply south of the border.
Damien Yeates, chief executive of Skills Development Scotland, said he hoped the employed status rule might be relaxed so that further education colleges could help apprentices complete their training. Currently, this is not possible if apprentices are made redundant: no job, no training - and 872 apprentices found themselves out of work at the last count in April.
But there were some notes of caution. Mr Park told The TESS that he did not favour "throwing in the towel" by abolishing the employed status rule. He preferred measures such as getting small businesses to work with larger employers in taking on apprentices, integrating apprenticeships in employer graduate programmes and ensuring the public sector took its fair share of apprentices (it employed 22.4 per cent of the workforce, he pointed out, and should take on that proportion of apprentices).
Mr Park called on MSPs to work with employers in their constituencies to provide apprentice places. They should use that opportunity to scotch the myth that it's a wasted investment because apprentices would leave after serving their time: most stay with their company, Mr Park said, acquire new skills and contribute to the business.
Jacqui Hepburn, Scotland director of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils, also warned against using the recession as a reason for getting rid of apprentices' employed status. "It has ensured they receive quality training and it would be a step backward to the days of training allowances and the youth training scheme. We shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater."
Ms Hepburn called instead for extending apprenticeships to growing sectors such as caring, the creative industries, renewables and life sciences; providing more opportunities for adults; introducing more "academically- driven" apprenticeships at SVQ levels 4 and 5 (degree level); and encouraging the public sector to take up more places. At present, the construction industry accounted for the lion's share - 20,118 of the 26,614 apprentices in training in 2009-10.
Ms Hepburn said this underlined the need to redress the gender imbalance among apprentices. Of the 20,118 in construction, only 2 per cent were women. Of the 1,552 apprentices in hairdressing, only 2 per cent were men.
The conference heard a strong critique of the present arrangements from Craig Thomson, principal of Adam Smith College. He said apprenticeships were part of "a complex and fragmented system which employers and individuals find difficult to understand and which is unsustainable in the face of an economic downturn".
Dr Thomson called for an end to "tinkering round the edges" and for "systemic change". There should be more integration of provision from apprenticeship to degree level, a closer combination of college and work- based delivery of programmes and a unified system of college-based and work-based assessment.