Ministers have hailed “a new era for apprenticeships” following a massive increase in the number of people starting courses.

In the West Midlands, 54,290 people began apprenticeships in 2010-11, up from 31,720 the year before – an increase of 71 per cent.

But Labour claimed the Government had “put the apprenticeships brand at risk” by allowing employers to rebrand existing staff training courses as apprenticeships.

The number beginning manufacturing or engineering apprenticeships in the West Midlands rose from 3,400 to 5,740.

But this was dwarfed by the number beginning courses in “health, public services and care” – up from 5,360 to 10,090 in the region.

And the number of people beginning apprenticeships in business, administration and law rose from 10,080 to 17,910.

Business Minister John Hayes said: “This is an unprecedented growth. The number across the country is now the biggest number of apprenticeships in modern history.

“The growth is at all levels and it’s at all age-groups. We think this a new era for apprenticeships.”

But Stephen Twigg, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said: “The Tory-led Government has put the apprenticeships brand at risk by undermining the qualifications that will help you get an apprenticeship, and allowing employers to rebrand short training courses for existing staff as apprenticeships.”

He added: “Too many companies are getting government funding for apprenticeships which don’t take on new employees, and only last a few weeks.”

Colleges, universities and employers have been promoting apprenticeships to mark Apprenticeship Week, from February 6 to 10.

And David Cameron, the Prime Minister, announced the launch of a new £6 million fund to support the development of thousands of new Higher Apprenticeships in sectors including aerospace, energy and renewable technologies.

He also announced that small firms will be offered an incentive of £1,500 to hire their first young apprentices.

This is expected to support up to 40,000 new apprenticeships over the next year.

Mr Cameron said: “I’m delighted to underline our commitment to strengthen our economy by helping employers take on apprentices and ensure that the UK workforce has the skills that businesses need.

Under this Government apprenticeship starts are increasing at a record rate, with improvements across the age range, in all sectors, throughout the country.

“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.”

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, chaired by Black Country MP Adrian Bailey, also announced it was extending the deadline for written evidence to be submitted with regards to its inquiry into apprenticeships until Friday February 10.

Mr Bailey (Lab West Bromwich East) said: “We want to receive as much evidence as possible.

“Respondents could, and indeed should, include companies of all sizes – from large corporations to the smallest SMEs - as well as people who have previously been enrolled on apprenticeship schemes, those who are currently enrolled and those who are thinking about enrolling in the future.”

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders marked National Apprenticeship Week by stepping up its campaign to promote manufacturing and engineering as rewarding career choices.

Chief executive Paul Everitt said: “The UK automotive industry offers fantastic career and skills opportunities for young people across a huge variety of disciplines from design, engineering, supply chain and manufacturing to retail and aftermarket.

“Despite challenging economic conditions, the industry took on more than 14,000 new apprentices in 2011, demonstrating its commitment to attracting the brightest and best talent to the sector.”

Figures published by the society show that record numbers of young people are embarking on careers in the UK automotive industry, with more than 14,000 recruited into apprenticeships in 2011 and almost two thirds of UK automotive companies recruiting new talent from schools and colleges to grow the sector’s skills base.

Business Secretary Vince Cable, speaking at the launch of National Apprenticesips Week, said: “I am very proud of the fact that at a time of financial constraint this Government has prioritised investment in apprenticeships.

“This has led to the creation of record numbers of apprenticeships combined with tough new standards to drive up quality. Apprenticeships are at the centre of the Government’s skills policy because we know that they work. Not only do they provide individuals with the skills they need for prosperous and rewarding careers, they also boost businesses’ profits and drive growth in the wider economy.”