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Trainees deserve a better deal

In the rather mixed story of Britain's industrial performance over the past 50 years, one our proudest achievements has been the tradition of apprenticeships. In the golden age of training-on-the-job, even lawyers could start a career at 16 making the tea and go on to be groomed for success by their employers.

The Learning and Skills Council and colleges deserve to be warmly congratulated for the role they have played in recent years in reviving apprenticeships, which for many are a far more effective way of providing equality of opportunity than the socio-economic marshalling yard of university selection.

So far, so good. But are apprenticeships attractive enough to make the exercise worthwhile for those who take part?

In many cases, the answer to this question would appear to be no.

As we report on page 3, the Federation of Small Businesses thinks trainees need to be better rewarded if the poor retention rates that have bedevilled the apprenticeships programme are to be improved.

Of course, businesses may well expect the extra money to come from the Treasury and not their own staffing budget. And who can blame them for trying? But the point is still clear. Regardless of where the money comes from - the taxpayer or the employer - we now have it loud and clear from businesses that pound;80 per week is not enough.

This is the opportunity for the unions - which have been making the same point about pay for a long time - to pick the ball up and run with it. They should press employers to provide a better deal for their trainees, regardless of whether the cost of doing so is going to be covered by the state.

The Government's coffers should be used as a means of motivating the public sector's own employees - lecturers - not as a pouch of fairy dust to sprinkle over employers.

If the apprenticeships are in the interests of the bottom line, industry should be prepared to make a bigger contribution from its own pocket. That is the best way of guaranteeing that the companies that take on apprentices will ensure the training is of the required standard and not just a cheap way of populating the shop floor.

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