Too many apprenticeships in England do not help teenagers start a career or progress to higher vocational education, research suggests.
The Institute for Public Policy Research wants lower level apprenticeships replaced by a pre-apprenticeship programme addressing 16- to 18-year-olds' "distinct needs".
Its report comes as universities are awarded £4.5m to develop 5,200 degree level apprenticeships from September.
Ministers said "apprenticeships work".
Apprenticeships Minister Robert Halfon said apprenticeship programmes and traineeships were part of the government's strategy to ensure that people of all backgrounds and all ages "can get on the ladder of opportunity".
He said that the existing apprenticeship programme for 16- to 18-year olds would boost participants' earnings, "by up to £74,000 more over their lifetime, thanks to the skills they gain".
He also argued that degree apprenticeships would "give people a real chance to earn while you learn putting you on the fast-track to a top career".
Degree apprentice courses will include nursing, construction, cybersecurity, food manufacturing, health care science and early years teaching.
The IPPR report says level-two apprenticeships for younger learners "are often very job specific, do not include much off the job training, and from next year they will not be required to include a recognised qualification".
"These sort of training programmes may make sense for adults who are already in work and looking to 'top up' their skills - however, they are not sufficient to help young people with relatively low levels of education get a foot on the career ladder," it says.
The research suggests a pre-apprenticeship programme be designed to "address explicitly the distinct needs of younger learners", with more "off the job training" and general education.
It suggests pre-apprenticeships be offered by further education colleges only, targeted at young people under the age of 18 and explicitly designed to help them move on to a level-three apprenticeship at the age of 18 or 19.
The scheme would also offer employers a subsidy they could use to cover a youngster's wages.
Clare McNeil, IPPR associate director for work and families, said: "Young people often struggle to make the transition from education to work.
"Our apprenticeship system is failing too many young people. It is just not giving them the opportunity they need to build a successful career, and to make the most of their talents.
"Britain can't afford to waste young people's talents like this anymore.
"Our system needs to help business and training providers to work together to deliver radically better training for these young people, learning from the best systems around the world."
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "The AoC has been calling for the introduction of a pre-apprenticeship offer for some time, so it's good to see other organisations pushing for the same idea, even if we probably need to debate the level at which that is delivered."
In March, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission warned the government's apprenticeships drive was failing to deliver for young people in England.