As a new CSJ report on apprenticeships shows, apprenticeships change lives. Combining a real job with training, apprentices earn while they learn.

They span a huge range of sectors – not just the important traditional heartlands of engineering and manufacturing, but finance, software design and the green economy, too.

The returns are extraordinary for all involved: apprentices go on to have excellent employment prospects, businesses benefit from new expertise, and every £1 invested in level three apprenticeships brings a £28 return to the economy. Apprenticeships are about as close to a win-win as it gets.

I was over the moon when the Prime Minister recently expressed his support for an apprenticeship guarantee – something I have been campaigning for over many years. An ambitious interpretation is now needed: we should work towards being able to guarantee that any young person who wants an apprenticeship, and who has the right skills and qualifications to do one, can make it happen.

Of course, this will not be possible from day one, but I’d like to highlight a number of areas that I think need the most attention.

First, small businesses must be supported to take on apprentices. The Chancellor took an historic and brave decision to protect businesses, particularly smaller ones, during lockdown. Now we can bring those businesses together with the extraordinary talent of our young people to develop new growth opportunities.

There really is potential here: tens of thousands of small businesses want to set up apprenticeships but cannot afford the training costs associated with this. We don’t need to stimulate demand here – it already exists. We just need to set it free, and the Government has the power to make this happen by supporting their training costs.

Second, ministers should use the levy as a strategic tool to close the skills deficit. This means refocusing the levy pot so that it primarily is used on apprenticeships for 16 to 24-year-olds and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Third, the public sector should set a stronger example. Apprentices in the NHS, and in other front-line services, did an incredible job during the pandemic. Building on this fine legacy starts with setting a much higher public sector apprenticeship target than the existing 2.3 percent. Public sector recruiters also have to be innovative in how they meet emerging needs by taking on apprentices, and we must hold them to account.

Moreover, public procurement contracts with big companies should be conditional on the number of apprentices they employ, particularly as we start to roll out the exciting flurry of new infrastructure projects that have been announced.

Fourth, we need more degree apprenticeships – my two favourite words in the English language. There are tough times ahead for universities, as there are for other businesses and education institutions. But there is also no better time to embrace a change that has been needed for some time. As practically-focused programmes (like the University of Essex’s collaboration with Edge Hotel School) show, the best graduates for industry are those who have fused theory with practice.

Over the next decade, universities should work towards a target of 50 percent of their students undertaking degree-level apprenticeships. A new round of the Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund would create more programmes like these.

But we must also make sure people know about apprenticeships and for this to happen, a more ambitious approach to careers advice is needed: proper enforcement of the Baker Clause, a UCAS-style system for Further Education, Skills and Apprenticeships, and more detailed destinations data.

Some will say that it won’t be possible to realise my ambition. It is, of course, easier to point out the obstacles that lie in our path than it is to remove them. But as Sir Nicholas Winton once said: “If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”

Ultimately, there is nothing inevitable about our current approach; we crafted it and, with the right will, ambition and imagination, we can easily choose to rebuild it. As the furlough scheme showed, we are perfectly capable of exercising all three. Apprenticeships should be placed where they belong – right at the core of our approach to learning and training. There are few better ways to climb the ladder of opportunity.