Not too many years ago you might have been forgiven for thinking that an apprentice was someone who was vying to win the attention of Lord Sugar on television.

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In a age when everybody was encouraged to apply for a place at university, little was said about the kind of workplace training associated with apprenticeships and, some might say, days of old.

But apprenticeships are all the rage now and are being hailed by the government as a key part of its growth strategy and long-term drive to “rebalance” the economy.

To reinforce the point, ministers yesterday announced an extra £6m of funding to support thousands of degree-level higher apprenticeships.

The funding comes on top of the £25m already pledged by the prime minister last year.

And the government also announced it wanted to boost vocational training by opening up a £250m employer ownership investment fund to bids from businesses to support training.

The cash could be well-timed as some think the government still has things to learn on apprenticeships, with some local employers voicing criticism – both over the funding and content of some training courses and hoping to see more emphasis on practical skills instead of theory or what one Norfolk managing director called “health and safety” skills.

Skills minister John Hayes last year announced a review into the quality and duration of all apprenticeship schemes, while MPs sitting on the Commons committee of business, innovation and skills are also holding an inquiry into the issue.

The coalition’s decision to scrap the Future Jobs Fund has also been attacked by the Labour Party, where critics have condemned a minimum wage rate of £2.60 an hour for apprentices under 19 or in their first year of training.

Last year even saw one Norfolk firm 3Sun step in take and on 10 new recruits after changes in the way that the Education and Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) must now engage apprentices, which had seen many employers choosing not to take on apprentices this year.

Bosses at EAGIT, the specialist Norwich-based engineering training provider running the courses had also proposed that staff take a 20pc pay cut to help ride out the funding shortfall after a drop in numbers all on the doorstep of Norwich North MP Chloe Smith, who last week urged more businesses in and around the city to take on apprentices.

Meanwhile, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) last week noted that more than two thirds of the apprenticeships created in England in the past five years were taken by the over 25s, while one in five of those running in 2010-11 lasted just six months.

In the last year there were 39,760 apprentices in the East of England including 6,200 in Norfolk, 5,360 in Suffolk and 4,620 in Cambridgeshire.

Nationally the majority signing up in the last academic year were working in business, administration and law, followed by retail. But the figures also show a rise in the number of under 19s signing up to construction apprenticeships and also engineering and manufacturing.

And the numbers are growing, with figures released on January 31 showing record growth in apprenticeship starts, with some 457,200 starting an apprenticeship in the full 2010/11 academic year up 63.5pc on 2009/10 figures.

Growth took place at all levels of learning, for all age groups, and across all sectors and all regions while the NAO also noted that every £1 of public investment in apprenticeships delivers a return of £18 to the wider economy.

This week a host of Norfolk-based engineering firms have agreed to open their doors to would-be apprentices to give them an opportunity to find out more.

At Great Yarmouth College alone apprenticeship numbers have doubled since last January to more than 330, highlighting the trend towards more on the job training.

Richard Bridgman, chairman of Thetford-based Warren Services, and East of England chairman Semta (the sector skills council for science engineering and manufacturing technologies) this week met Mr Hayes in London to lobby him directly on how the system can be improved.

“We all recognise the importance of training for the future, unless we do, we are going to be in a far bigger mess than we are now,” Mr Bridgman said. “The government is only just getting its act together to address our skills shortages and realising that apprentice training is one of the main ways that will help the manufacturing sector take advantage of the growth needed to get the country out of the recession.

“It’s not going to happen overnight as it takes four years to train to level three, but it’s a very good start. All the participating manufacturers recognise this and want to encourage more companies to take on apprentices and help build a better future for our local youngsters and help the prosperity of Norfolk and the UK .

“I think we might be turning the corner and they are listening and taking action. Once we have sorted and encouraged more companies to take apprentices on, we need to make sure that the correct level, facilities and suitable training providers and funding can be found, this is another major challenge as the equipment needed is so expensive and the level of expertise needed (hence equipment should have stayed at Hethel).

Announcing the new funding yesterday, Mr Hayes insisted the government was on the right track.

“Clarity of policy and certainly of purpose in government has delivered a record number of apprenticeships and driven up standards at every level. We must now go further to create new pathways to excellence for the brightest and best young people.

“Our mission is to put practical training on a level playing field with academic study, creating a highly skilled, creative workforce that can take on the best in the world.”

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