Ministers have hailed “a new era for apprenticeships” following a massive increase in the number of people starting courses.
In the West Midlands, 54,290 people began apprenticeships in 2010-11, up from 31,720 the year before – an increase of 71 per cent.
But Labour claimed the Government had “put the apprenticeships brand at risk” by allowing employers to rebrand existing staff training courses as apprenticeships.
The number beginning manufacturing or engineering apprenticeships in the West Midlands rose from 3,400 to 5,740.
But this was dwarfed by the number beginning courses in “health, public services and care” – up from 5,360 to 10,090 in the region.
And the number of people beginning apprenticeships in business, administration and law rose from 10,080 to 17,910.
Business Minister John Hayes said: “This is an unprecedented growth. The number across the country is now the biggest number of apprenticeships in modern history.
“The growth is at all levels and it’s at all age-groups. We think this a new era for apprenticeships.”
But Stephen Twigg, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said: “The Tory-led Government has put the apprenticeships brand at risk by undermining the qualifications that will help you get an apprenticeship, and allowing employers to rebrand short training courses for existing staff as apprenticeships.”
He added: “Too many companies are getting government funding for apprenticeships which don’t take on new employees, and only last a few weeks.”
Colleges, universities and employers have been promoting apprenticeships to mark Apprenticeship Week, from February 6 to 10.
And David Cameron, the Prime Minister, announced the launch of a new £6 million fund to support the development of thousands of new Higher Apprenticeships in sectors including aerospace, energy and renewable technologies.
He also announced that small firms will be offered an incentive of £1,500 to hire their first young apprentices.
This is expected to support up to 40,000 new apprenticeships over the next year.
Mr Cameron said: “I’m delighted to underline our commitment to strengthen our economy by helping employers take on apprentices and ensure that the UK workforce has the skills that businesses need.
Under this Government apprenticeship starts are increasing at a record rate, with improvements across the age range, in all sectors, throughout the country.