By Oliver Hotham
"Technical excellence" should be placed on a par with "academic prowess" in Britain's rebalanced economy, David Cameron has said.
The prime minister is promoting a new scheme supporting thousands of apprenticeships as the government marks National Apprenticeship Week.
A 'higher apprenticeship fund' worth £6 million is being set up to pay for new apprenticeships in sectors of the economy the government is keen to develop, including aerospace, energy and renewable technologies.
Small businesses will be paid £1,500 when they take on their first young apprentices – a move ministers hope will support up to 40,000 new apprenticeships over the next year.
Companies will be encouraged to apply for up to £250 million of public money to participate in a new 'employer ownership' pilot, giving them more influence over how apprenticeship education is carried out.
"By making apprenticeships a gold standard option for ambitious young people, we are sending a message that technical excellence is as highly valued as academic prowess," Mr Cameron said.
"And by focusing investment where it is most needed to deliver sustainable growth and offering real ownership of vocational training to employers, we are equipping businesses with the skills they need to rebalance our economy and distribute opportunity more widely."
Skills minister John Hayes said the government's mission is to "[create] a highly skilled, creative workforce that can take on the best in the world".
The government cited statistics which demonstrate record growth in apprenticeship starts, with some 457,200 starting an apprenticeship in the full 2010/11 academic year.
Officials are keen to promote apprenticeships because of the value they bring to the UK economy. According to the National Audit Office every £1 of public investment in apprenticeships delivers a return of £18.
The government's emphasis on its commitment to apprenticeships comes after significant controversy in January.
Two executives of the government's schemes resigned as criticisms grew over the way public funds were being spent on apprenticeships - including a scheme where £6 million of taxpayers' money was spent on training thousands of young people as football coaches and left many without qualifications.