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The one question I am asked above all others by journalists is 'are Apprenticeships growing?' Whilst the official figures have not yet been published, initial indications, and certainly the figures from the first 9 months, show that they will be significantly up on the year before. And much of this is thanks to the great work that providers, Colleges, FE colleagues and partners have been doing. Your support and assistance has enabled the number of Apprenticeship opportunities to significantly grow, even in difficult economic times. This is a fantastic achievement – for us as a sector and those new apprentices.

You will no doubt be aware of the benefits Apprenticeships bring to organisations, employers, individuals and the economy. My own experience, research and the examples the NAS staff see every day, continually show that Apprenticeships are the optimal way of training, developing and skilling people for the future.

Evidence shows that Apprenticeships help businesses across all industries to reduce skill shortages, minimise staff turnover, and increase productivity. Recent research, by the Return on Investment Academy for the National Employer Service shows that in TUI former apprentices in the 16-18 year old group outperform colleagues by 26%. Additionally at Dollond & Aitchison the increase in revenue from the Apprenticeship programme is between 10 and 13 times the cost of running the programme. Evidence from Superdrug shows that retention rates of apprentices are twice as high as than for other members of staff.

Additionally, Populus research for the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) shows that 80% of employers who employ apprentices agree they make their workplace more productive, and 83% of employers who employ apprentices rely on their Apprenticeships programme to provide the skilled workers they need for the future.

We all know how important skills are, not only to business, but to individuals and the growth and prosperity of the country as a whole. They help businesses to succeed, enable individuals to realise their potential and make our economy competitive on a global scale. Your support to help achieve this agenda is really vital.

Not only have I seen first hand the business benefits of Apprenticeships, I have also seen the benefits they bring to individuals. An Apprenticeship enables individuals to earn while they learn, and learn in a way that is best suited to them – learning through hands on experience on the job. Apprenticeships can be demanding, but they are also extremely rewarding. They not only teach people new skills, but they are a fantastic way of gaining experience and improving confidence. On top of this, 9 out of 10 are still in employment or education at the end of their Apprenticeships programme.

Since the 1st October a new National Minimum Wage (NMW) for apprentices has been in place, when the current exemption from the Minimum Wage for apprentices ended.

The new NMW applies to all apprentices aged under 19, and apprentices aged 19 or over in the first year of their Apprenticeship. The apprentice NMW is £2.50 per hour, and applies to time working, plus time spent training as part of the Apprenticeship. This will ensure that for the first time, all apprentices in the UK receive the protection of the National Minimum Wage. Our research has found that many apprentices actually earn far more than the minimum wage for an apprentice, and that the average rate of pay is in fact around £170 a week.

The National Apprenticeship Service provides funding, support and advice for businesses wanting to recruit apprentices, and for learners wanting to start an Apprenticeship. We are continuing to build the Apprenticeship vacancies system, and we are now seeing at any one time over 8,000 vacancies being advertised, with over 350,000 candidates registered on the system.

Going forward, we recognise that there are current skills gaps and an ageing population in many sectors. For example, skills gaps exist in the renewables sector which predicts that it will need 66,000 more technicians by 2020. Additionally, the science, engineering and manufacturing sector will require 19,200 Level 3 technicians by 2016. Apprenticeships can help fill skills gaps and address the issues of an ageing population. It is therefore important that we start to anticipate need and grow Apprenticeships at the right level in the right industries. An advanced economy needs advanced skills.

Creating 50,000 new Apprenticeships by redeploying £150 million of Train to Gain budget will ensure more people are offered a route into employment, and ensure our economy has the advanced skills it needs. Apprenticeships are a vital way of developing individual's skills and generating a committed and valuable workforce. Apprenticeships have a huge part to play as it is only through the development of a skilled and dedicated workforce that our economy will thrive and we will see employment levels return.

So once again, I want to thank all of you who have supported the Apprenticeship programme to significantly grow over the last year. We couldn't have grown the programme without your help, and I hope we can go on to grow the numbers even further.

Simon Waugh is chairman of the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS)

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