By Stephen Stott, CEO of Stott and May

In the run up to the general election, zero-hours contracts became a hot topic. Some held them up as an example of the free market gone mad; others defended the flexibility and increased employment opportunities they offer. The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in between these two scenarios.

To really get to the heart of the subject, we need to appreciate the number of zero-hour contracts in use compared to the workforce at large. In October-December 2014, just 2.3% of the whole workforce was on a zero-hour contract, according to the ONS. And contrary to stories bemoaning an “explosion” in these types of contract, the same period the previous year saw just 1.9% of the workforce on zero-hour contracts.

The CIPD reported that 38% of those on such contracts actually work 30 hours or more per week – legally full-time hours – while the average usually worked is 25 hours.

These statistics are the forgotten part of the zero-hours contract debate. It’s fair to say that the majority of those on zero-hours contracts are actually getting a fair deal – from students who want to fit work around their studies to over 65s who want to occasionally supplement their retirement income. Indeed, some of those on such contracts may be self-employed and providing services to other businesses.

Likewise, it’s unfair to label all employers who use zero-hours contracts as disregarding worker rights. There are legal safeguards in place, such as receiving the minimum wage and holiday entitlement, which make the potential abuse of these contracts rare indeed. Take all of these considerations into the equation, and it becomes apparent that the argument against zero-hours contracts has been blown out of proportion.

However, the zero-hours contract is by no means perfect. The majority employed in these circumstances are under the age of 25, and they are most commonly employed in the accommodation or food services sectors as the flexibility suits the seasonal nature of the work. This information suggests that we’re missing a trick in not providing young people with valuable work experience, on a basis that meets both parties’ needs, seasonal or otherwise.

Therefore, the benefits of zero-hours contracts – for both workers and employers – should be applied to the UK’s flagging apprenticeship scheme and run through the Job Centre. This will give the unemployed the opportunity and skills they need to become more employable, with valuable on-the-job training in their chosen fields. Take into consideration the industries that typically employ zero-hours workers – namely agriculture, hospitality and catering – and it becomes clear that these are industries to which apprenticeships are ideally suited.

A major benefit of running apprenticeships in this way is giving people a sense of a “performance-related benefits package” from the state – training and skills in return for hard work. In addition, bringing zero-hour contracts under the remit of job centres limits the risks of employers manipulating or abusing the system.

The end result this proposed system would be a flexible, economically-viable way for employers to take on apprenticeships. Apprentices would enjoy a more stable and secure future, as they can use the skills gained to move on to more permanent employment. If they’re used as a stepping stone for young people, zero-hour contracts can only be a good thing – for them and our economy.