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What do Jamie Oliver, Alexander McQueen and Sir Alex Ferguson all have in common? They all started out as apprentices.

Many people may not know that some of our greatest achievers learnt their crafts on the job. And many people may not know that across the country there are thousands – hundreds of thousands – who are following in their footsteps by becoming apprentices.

In fact, the numbers are rapidly increasing. Here in Sutton Coldfield there were 410 new apprentices in 2009/10 and 560 the following year. And we are not alone: across England there was a 60 per cent increase in the same period. The surge is set to continue thanks to the Government’s new incentive, announced last week, whereby small businesses will be given £1,500 if they take on an apprentice aged between 16 and 24.

Why do I know this will be a success? Because the coalition has a great record in this area. The Chancellor George Osborne promised 50,000 extra apprenticeships for over 19s – but it delivered more than 100,000. Labour wanted 360,000 apprenticeships by 2020 – but the coalition smashed that target nine years early. Recruiting apprentices used to mean battling with bureaucracy – but following last week’s announcement, it will only take one month to start advertising such a position.

But what is so great about apprenticeships?

First: opportunity. You leave school or college and you find yourself at a crossroads. One path leads to university, another to a gap year, another to work. But there is another path: one which leads you to becoming an apprentice. And the best thing is that you can earn and learn at the same time.

The second fantastic thing about apprenticeships is the skills they provide. More and more employers are saying that graduates and school leavers do not have the skills necessary for the working world. University isn’t always the best option – sometimes an apprenticeship will be a better way of developing a young person’s skills in a way that is directly tailored to the workplace. This doesn’t mean less rigour. Apprenticeships tend to be intensive, focussed and hands-on. In fact, under last week’s announcement, apprenticeship providers will be required to offer training in English and Maths up to the standard of a good GCSE.

Thirdly – and most importantly – apprenticeships are vital at a time when we face the biggest economic crisis any of us have known, when unemployment is, consequently, soaring. Jobs and growth are the answer, and apprenticeships are vital. I hear from countless constituents who write to me or come to my surgeries saying they have sent off hundreds of CVs to little avail. The most common feedback they get is that they lack experience. This is especially true when lean times mean businesses are less willing to recruit younger employees. But apprenticeships make people workplace-wise, and more employable.

I have seen for myself the excellent work of apprentices in businesses across Sutton Coldfield. And they’re not the only ones – others are benefitting from excellent schemes up and down the country, from BAE, to Mercedes, from the NHS to Deloitte.

Apprenticeships are good for the economy, good for employers and, most importantly, good for apprentices themselves. So I am delighted that here in Sutton Coldfield and across the UK we are adding many more names to the list of people who have started glittering careers as apprentices. At a time when youth unemployment is of great concern, the Coalition focus on apprenticeships is important and welcome.

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