Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a new generation of apprenticeships designed to drive down youth unemployment and boost vocational training for thousands of young people.
Business leaders last night welcomed the news, but others warned that the new-style schemes will only work if young people are paid properly.
More than 60 companies - including Mini owners BMW, BAE Systems, Microsoft and Barclays Bank - have signed up to be “trailblazers” for the new-style apprenticeships.
The schemes have been developed in response to last November’s report by entrepreneur Doug Richard, which called for the status and quality of apprenticeships to be much more clearly defined.
John Huddleston, regional executive for CBI North East, said: “Apprenticeships deliver a double benefit - to the economy and on youth unemployment. But to get the best out of them, business has to be in the driving seat. Today’s announcement is a big step towards this.
“It’s great that we are seeing real progress through the trailblazers. These firms demonstrate business’ commitment to apprenticeships. The real test of the new system will be whether it is simple; works for firms of all sizes; and puts the funding in the hands of businesses.”
In future, apprenticeships will last at least a year and will be based on standards designed by employers, to meet the specific needs of their industry.
Apprentices will be subjected to more thorough academic assessment - including maths and English tests - and will be graded at pass, merit or distinction level in a similar way to those in full-time education. At least 20% of their training will take place away from their work stations.
While Mr Cameron has piloted the scheme as a way of driving down youth unemployment, trade union officials last night reminded ministers that apprentices on low-pay should not be taken advantage of by businesses.
According to the TUC, a survey carried out last year revealed that 29% of apprentices interviewed were paid less than the equivalent national minimum wage for their age or year of study. A further 13% were not even being paid the apprentice minimum wage rate of £2.65 an hour.
Neil Foster, policy and campaigns officer for the Northern TUC, said: “Longer apprenticeships are to be welcomed because it is their quality and not just quantity that determines their contribution to the economy. Many people don’t realise that the minimum wage for an apprentice is only £2.68 per hour and even then the number of apprentices paid below the correct minimum wage rate increased by 45% last year.
“How as a country can we claim to value apprenticeships if we don’t value the apprentice’s right to be paid properly?”