"I think I've made the right decision." For 18-year-old Sean McGrath that decision was the guaranteed job that comes with the Modern Apprenticeship.
His six grade C, GCSE passes and two A-levels make him just the sort of recruit that David Russell of the Plymouth Engineering Group Training Scheme (PEGTS) is hoping to attract. Sean also had an offer to study mechanical engineering at Plymouth University.
"My parents would have supported me (through university) but I felt it would be a long struggle. The Modern Apprenticeship will give me qualifications and experience," he says.
At further education college, he had shown an aptitude for graphic design but fought shy of a career in such a competitive field. He had heard that PEGTS was good, and having done some lathe work, which he enjoyed, he decided to apply.
Through PEGTS he got a place at Gleason Works, a local engineering firm that makes gear cutters. And if the long-term job prospects are attractive, so are the short-term financial rewards. "I compare it with an apprenticeship to Youth Training but financially it is much better."
In Sean's case, this works out at Pounds 45 per week from PEGTS topped up by another Pounds 50 from Gleason Works. Wages for Modern Apprenticeships at Plymouth vary from Pounds 50 to Pounds 120 a week: the Japanese firm, Kawasaki, pays Pounds 105 a week, but it is securing a place with a company that is crucial.
Seventeen-year-old Richard Binmore has so far failed to do that. He wants to do electrical engineering and remains hopeful, explaining that an apprenticeship was always his first choice over studying a general national vocational qualification in advanced engineering at college.
"I'd rather learn through a company doing practicals than at a college doing theory," he says. And he didn't feel that the time spent on a GNVQ placement could really compare. Certainly, his carpenter father, who himself had served a traditional apprenticeship, felt that an apprenticeship was best.
In contrast, 19-year-old Damian Cathro has decided to go to university even though he has been accepted on to the PEGTS programme. Having failed one interview because, he says, he was "over-qualified" (he has two A- levels), Damian believes that while university will "be fun", unemployment will be the most likely end result.
Provided firms can offer places, it seems that the Modern Apprenticeship in engineering is an attractive prospect for able school-leavers. This is no more true in engineering than it is in a new field like computer-aided design and, as 17-year-old Kevin Maier from Oxford found out, an apprenticeship, compared to A-levels or a GNVQ, was his best option.
Unable to get the mix of A-levels he wanted at school (he has seven GCSEs at grade C and above), Kevin Maier went to the local FE college to take a GNVQ in Art and Design. To his dismay, he found that he lacked some of the skills necessary to complete work for the course, while materials proved way beyond his income of Pounds 18 per week (from a Saturday job) and a one-off, Pounds 300 grant from his dad.
By contrast, a Modern Apprenticeship could give him training, a job and an income. Having heard of the initiative through a local TEC newsletter, he left college and is looking to local companies to take him on.
Of the three routes, Kevin Maier feels that an apprenticeship comes out on top. "For the line of work that I'm interested in, employers want experience not qualifications," he says.
By taking on a Modern Apprentice, employers can have both.