Thousands of school-leavers may be harming their job prospects by seeking a place at university this summer.
Results of a poll of more than 500 employers released today reveal that many would rather take on an apprentice than hire a graduate.
"You are typically seeing a faster return on your investment with an apprentice," said Chris Jones, the director general of City and Guilds, which conducted the survey. "They appear to be delivering to a higher level. They pick up the sense of culture of the firm and the workplace quicker."
The findings paint a picture of a return to the days when school-leavers were articled or took up apprenticeships and started earning a wage before returning to some form of work-placed study.
Mr Jones added: "I think a lot of people would say that the target of getting 50 per cent through to university has perhaps distorted everyone's expectations of how they should progress out of school."
Gordon Marsden, the Labour spokesman for Further Education and Skills, welcomed the fact that companies were embracing apprenticeships.
However, he cited another finding in the report which showed that one in five companies thought it would be "too risky" to take on an apprentice in the current economic climate. In the North-west this rose to 31 per cent.
More than 200,000 university hopefuls were denied a place in higher education last year – and experts predict a similar number, if not more, will face disappointment this summer as young people abandon plans for a gap year to beat the rise in tuition fees.
University lecturers have forecast that substantial numbers of young people – particularly from disadvantaged communities – will be put off applying to university from next year for fear of debt. A growing number of firms are launching their own apprenticeship schemes – the latest being Proctor & Gamble, which is now choosing to recruit school-leavers to help handle its finances rather than graduates.
The move has seen the number of applications for jobs more than double from 70 to 160. In January, KPMG said it would be prepared to pay trainees £20,000 a year to cover their passage through university if they signed on to a training scheme beforehand.
Today's poll shows that 52 per cent of those companies which already recruit apprentices believe they offer greater value than hiring graduates.
In addition, 71 per cent of firms which at present do not hire apprentices say they could be encouraged to hire them – and 94 per cent could be persuaded to take more. The companies saying they would prefer to switch to hiring apprentices range from traditional craft firms – employing engineers and draughtsmen – to accountancy, finance and consumer services firms.
The poll's findings have a champion in the Tory MP for Carlisle, John Stevenson, who told a local business forum that apprenticeships had been overlooked for far too long. "I think it is utterly ridiculous and the increase in tuition fees might make people think and encourage certain sections of youngsters to do something different. I think they lost sight of the value of workplace experience and training. That's where apprenticeships come in."
John Denham, Labour's Universities spokesman, said Mr Stevenson's comments had "let the cat out of the bag by finally admitting their hugely unfair increases in fees will mean fewer people will go to university".
The poll is published on the eve of National Apprenticeship Week, focusing on government plans to increase the number of apprenticeships by 50,000 a year.