Apprenticeships of less than six months provide "no real benefit" to trainees or their employers, a parliamentary report warned today.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee praised the Business Department's drive to boost the number of apprenticeships, which quadrupled from 79,000 in 2006/07 to 325,500 in 2010/11, with the proportion completed successfully rising from 34% to 78% over six years.
But the cross-party committee voiced concern over the amount and quality of training, and welcomed skills minister John Hayes' announcement in April that in future the vast majority of apprenticeships will last more than 12 months, with a six-month minimum for over-19s who already have qualifications.
Today's report said that the £451 million apprenticeship programme, offering work-related training for full-time employees in England, was a proven success, delivering £18 in economic benefits for every £1 spent.
But the committee said England still lagged behind other countries in the size of its programme and in the proportion of apprentices taking advanced-level courses.
It warned that the programme will have to be better promoted after 2013/14, when over-24s will be required to contribute financially to the cost of advanced apprenticeships.
The MPs added that the National Apprenticeship Service was setting rates for courses on the basis of "out-dated assumptions" and did not know what profits training providers were making or whether it was paying them too much.
Committee chairman Margaret Hodge said: "The apprenticeship programme has been a success.
"The department has done very well in raising the number of adult apprenticeships, which more than quadrupled in the four years to 2010/11. The proportion of adult apprentices who successfully completed their apprenticeship also rose, to more than three-quarters in 2010/11 compared with just a third six years before.
"But the department could do more to maximise the programme's impacts.
"My committee is concerned about the number of short training programmes classified as apprenticeships. The National Apprenticeship Service expects them to last between one and four years, but around a fifth of apprenticeships lasted for only six months or even less.
"The danger is that apprenticeships lasting such a short time are of no real benefit to either the individuals who take part or employers and could devalue the programme. I am pleased therefore that the skills minister announced recently that adult apprenticeships will last a minimum of six months and normally at least 12 months
"We also have concerns about the amount and quality of training some apprentices receive. Many do not receive the off-the-job training they are entitled to and this is something the department must address.
"Many employers still see apprenticeships as a cost rather than an investment. The department needs to do more to promote the benefits of apprenticeships both to employers and individuals, so that England's apprenticeship programme can catch up with the programmes of other countries.
"If the service is to get better at targeting of resources, it needs to understand better which apprenticeships in which sectors deliver the best value for money. It doesn't currently know what levels of profit the providers are making and whether it is paying them too much for some types of apprenticeship."
Mr Hayes said: "I am delighted that the PAC has praised the Government for its successful apprenticeship programme.
"Over the past two years, the number of apprenticeships has increased from 279,700 in 2009/10 to 457,000 in 2010/11, and tough new measures to ensure that quality matches quantity have helped to make apprenticeships the gold standard vocational qualification.
"As the committee has pointed out, apprenticeships offer exceptional value for taxpayer money and great benefits to the individual. This year the National Audit Office found that adult apprenticeships deliver £18 of economic benefits for each pound of Government investment.
"Typically an employer will see a return on their investment in around two years. A survey published this week shows that nine out of 10 apprentices are satisfied with their training and a third have received a promotion as a result.
"However, we are far from complacent. We are continuously working to drive up standards. New safeguards are being put in place to strengthen monitoring, reporting and subcontracting arrangements and last month I announced that all apprenticeships must now last a minimum of 12 months. A Standards Review will report in the autumn, recommending how to spread best practice and maximise the impact of Government investment."