The Government's latest crunch-busting strategy has received a warm reception from industry experts.
The prime minister, Gordon Brown, and the business secretary, John Hutton, have promised a light at the end of the downturn tunnel - at least for the manufacturing sector - by investing £150 million in the industry and promising an increase of 1,500 apprentices in addition to the 9,000 it had already pledged over the next three years. It will also increase the minimum wage for apprentices from £80 to £95 per week.
Ian Brinkley, associate director at The Work Foundation, sees this as a positive step forward. He says: "Obviously this is the right thing to do. In the past the Government invested in training, but now it has engaged employers by giving them investment in human capital."
The promising reception was echoed in the food and drink industry, one of the biggest employers in manufacturing. Angela Coleshill, human resources director at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), believes that by investing in apprenticeships, the Government will make a positive impact. She says: "I think, historically, not enough has been done to promote apprenticeships, and it's time for them to be invigorated. But it might take a while as a number of them have died out and need to grow again."
Brinkley agrees, advising employers not to get their hopes up too much as increasing apprenticeships would not cause the sector to grow and thrive overnight. "There will be a temporary flurry of interest, but a continued focus from ministers remains to be seen. The state of the economy is bad and there will be no improvement in the short term. The Government shouldn't hold back but it would have been better to launch a scheme like this when the sector was doing well," he explains.
However, Fiona Murray, policy adviser at the CBI, says: "Now that the market is bumpy we need to focus on what's good in our workforce and nurture good apprentices." But Murray adds a note of caution, pointing out that bureaucracy and red tape need to be minimised to simplify the process, and the quality rather than quantity of the schemes should be the focus.
Either way apprenticeships have made a comeback lately. Last month British Gas trebled the number of its apprentices, with a £40 million investment commitment over the next 18 months. Alan Johnson, director of the academy of apprentices at British Gas, explains: "Apprenticeships breed commitment: 90% of our apprentices have stayed with us for five years or more. I think we have proved that these schemes are the way to grow a business. Apprenticeships deliver a long-term value investment - we saw our investments return after year three."
But, according to Jack Matthews, chairman of food and drink skills council Improve, employers should remember the workforce they already have when implementing apprentice schemes. "Employers who invest in existing staff will see an instantaneous payback."