Purpose - The purpose of the paper is to examine the ways in which Australian companies can achieve high quality apprenticeship and traineeship systems in a time of labour shortage through close attention to the recruitment and development of apprentices and trainees. Design/methodology/approach - The paper is based on six qualitative case studies in a range of industries and occupational areas, carried out as part of an international project on apprenticeship. Findings - The paper finds that there are significant differences among companies in the skills and experience that they bring to the processes of recruiting and developing apprentices and trainees. Poor skills appear to lead to poor outcomes in terms of quality of apprentices and trainees while investment of skills and time leads to high quality outcomes that may significantly add value to the company. The effects of shortcomings in this area may be exacerbated in a tight labour market. Research limitations - The research in this paper is limited by the depth of the case studies which primarily rest on in-depth interviews with senior managers. The research could be extended by further case studies that include interviews with apprentices and trainees. Practical implications - The paper shows that companies employing apprentices and trainees need to be very clear about why they are employing them and the development strategies that will be put in place. The inclusion of off-the-job training at a training provider adds a safety net that is particularly important for inexperienced companies. Originality/value - The value of the paper lies in its use of detailed empirical examples to illustrate successful and less successful ways of managing apprentices and trainees.