with Alex Salmond, First Minister and MSP for Aberdeenshire East

Jobs and economic growth are the Scottish Government’s top priorities and I think youth employment most of all is critical.

The economic cost of unemployment is significant but the cost of youth unemployment in disaffection and disillusionment is even greater.

Almost 13,000 people have started a Modern Apprenticeship (MA) this year – more than half of the annual target number.

These figures were recently published by Skills Development Scotland (SDS) who work with employers and training providers to support MA places, paying a contribution towards the costs of training.

During the first half of the financial year 12,993 people have started an MA – 52 per cent of the annual target of 25,000 new starts each year.

More than three quarters – 78 per cent – of those new starts were taken up by people aged between 16 and 24 years old providing tremendous career opportunities for those young people.

Modern Apprenticeships offer work-based learning in a range of industries and sectors including tourism, engineering, life sciences and ICT are vital in supporting more young people and more business across Scotland.

In the previous three years more than 77,000 Modern Apprenticeship places were created.That’s 77,000 people offered a new opportunity which support not only them, but their employer and the wider economy. Modern Apprenticeships form a significant part of the Scottish Government’s pledge to support youth employment and earlier this year it was announced that the number of places available year on year will incease from 25,000 to 30,000 by 2020.

And there was cause to celebrate the successes of Scotland’s Modern Apprentices recently at an annual awards ceremony. Winners and finalists from nine categories were recognised for their commitment to training and gaining new skills.

The awards ceremony was held earlier this month and Modern Apprentices, along with their employers, spent a week from November 3 to 7 visiting schools in the North-east of Scotland to help pupils find out more about work-based learning.

Gavin Buchan, of ACE Winches in Turriff, was named a finalist in the Apprentice Ambassador of the Year category after being described by his employers as “an exemplar” of Modern Apprenticeships.

Mr Buchan completed his machining apprenticeship with ACE Winches and is a mentor to new apprentices.

I am delighted that Gavin and Lisa have been recognised for their hard work and commitment to their training.

I enjoyed meeting Gavin a couple of years ago when he had just finished his four year apprenticeship at ACE Winches and am very pleased to hear that he has continued to be a role model for other young people at the company.

And Lisa Finnigan, of Davidsons Butcher Shop in Inverurie, became a finalist in the level 3 Apprentice of the Year category after undertaking the butchery retail skills apprenticeship and moving on to the butchery diploma. #

Ms Finnigan has also become a finalist in the Young Butcher of the Year competition and will find out on Friday if she will be crowned the overall winner of the accolade.

Lisa has done extremely well to achieve her qualifications at 21 and in what is traditionally a male-dominated environment. She should be very proud of her achievement and I wish her the very best of luck on Friday and with her future training.

I always look forward to First Minister’s Questions but this week will be particularly special as it will be my last.

There will also be the added excitement of not knowing who will be asking questions on behalf of the Labour party as they continue to stumble through the post-referendum wilderness they find themselves in.

This week will be made even more enjoyable because I will be joined by some very special guests.

I donated a lunch for six at the Scottish Parliament after my final clash with opposition leaders as First Minister to Northsound Radio’s Cash For Kids charity auction which was held live on-air on November 6.

I am delighted that the lunch raised £2,600 of the £19,000 total which will help Cash For Kids in supporting disabled and disadvantaged children under the age of 18 across Grampian.

I am honoured to be involved in supporting the work of such a worthwhile and deserving cause.

I am delighted that the winning bidders are from my constituency and look forward to them joining me for a historic and memorable day on Thursday.