Grocery market leader Tesco is to create 20,000 new jobs in the UK over the next few years as it invests in customer service, refreshing stores and opening new shops in a bid to revitalise the business.

Tesco’s pledge follows  controversy over its participation in a Government-backed work experience programme and the retailer said it will focus on giving opportunities to the young unemployed. Tesco is also to expand its apprenticeship programme to provide 1,000 apprenticeships.

Tesco said the recruitment drive will deliver “new levels of excellence in customer service across stores.” The retailer will “invest significantly in additional staff hours and training to boost the customer experience - including on fresh produce, fresh meat, bakery and the counter services that customers value the most”.

The grocer maintained that the hiring push  reflects “a substantial programme to refresh hundreds of existing stores, improving space and layout and the overall shopping experience, as well as opening new stores”.

Prime Minister David Cameron gave his backing to Tesco’s plans. He said: “This is a massive confidence boost for the UK economy. Tesco is one of the world’s leading companies and the biggest private sector employer in this country.

“Their commitment to creating jobs and opportunities for young people at what is a difficult time for the economy is fantastic news for the UK as a whole and for those people they will help into work.”

The move marks part of Tesco’s turnaround. The grocer has suffered a market share fall in recent months and issued its first profit warning in 20 years this year.

Tesco UK chief executive  Richard Brasher said: “In unprecedented economic conditions like these, major businesses have a big responsibility to step forward, invest and create jobs.  Today’s announcement is a huge shot in the arm for the UK economy. 

“At the core of this investment is our determination to deliver the best shopping experience for our customers, bar none.  We will invest in more staff on the sales floor at busy times, greater expertise and help in the crucial areas of fresh food, and enhanced quality and service across our stores at all times.

“To deliver this we’re going to strengthen our customer service team - 20,000 more staff across our stores over the next two years.

“With youth unemployment at record levels, we’re determined to target many of our new jobs at young people currently out of work so that in this difficult jobs market those who need help the most will get it.

“Our investment is a win-win for customers, unemployed young people and the UK economy as a whole.”

Brasher responded to cynicism that the jobs reported are not entirely new. He told Sky News: “We are not counting people who move around our business….These are real net new jobs, and that’s what we stand behind.”

Retailers have been in the firing line in recent weeks over their participation in wiork experience schemes amid allegations that the young unemployed are being exploited.