How to find and succeed in an apprenticeship

In July 2016, Adam Newton began his finance career as an AAT apprentice at Rostrons, a Norfolk-based accountancy firm.

But securing a job wasn’t easy. After submitting a host of applications with little success, he says that it was “tough to be motivated, especially when you get a reply one in 10 times.” His persistence  paid off, and he’s now six months into his apprenticeship.

There are up to 28,000 apprenticeship opportunities available on the gov.uk site at any given time. With placements across 170 industries and 1,500 different roles, apprenticeships provide both a gateway into a wide range of occupations and an alternative to an academic route into work. They’re designed to offer high-quality training alongside a paid role in the relevant occupation, so the apprentice can earn while they learn. Apprentices can begin their studies at GCSE or A level equivalent qualifications, and work their way up to degree level –  without having to take out student loans.

First steps

Starting out with the burden of university debt is the norm rather than the exception for many young people today, but the promise of greater career prospects persuades many of them that the financial pain will be worth it. Adam, however, preferred the idea of gaining on-the-job experience. With this in mind, an apprenticeship was the natural way forward, so Adam set about applying. What didn’t help, though, was his school’s emphasis on university, but he soon discovered that one of the most important traits for an aspiring apprentice is determination. “I didn’t get much help from the school at finding apprenticeships,” he says. “They were all about universities, so I had to do most of it by myself.

His experience is far from unusual. A 2015 report by education think-tank, the Sutton Trust, found that 65% of teachers would not advise a student with predicted grades that could secure them a university place to consider apprenticeships. Schools with sixth forms have also been reported to steer pupils away from vocational options in an effort to retain them.

With no assistance from his school and still undecided on his direction, Adam spent time contacting every company he could find to see if they were willing to take on an apprentice. “I applied for a lot of places and I didn’t get many replies,” he recalls. “I was emailing speculatively, seeing if they had any opportunities or any openings.” His persistence was rewarded when he reached the interview stage at Rostrons, and soon afterwards he got the result he was after.

When he started his new role, Adam was faced with the reality of early mornings and long days. But he soon got used to the working routine and now enjoys the advantages of a strong, team-based environment where he can learn from his skilled colleagues. “There are many benefits to being around people with more experience than you in the workplace,” he says.

Learning on the job

Apprenticeships have two main elements: on-the-job learning and external study for a qualification. Combining a full-time job with out-of-hours studying might sound like a lot of work, but it delivers a significant benefit to the apprentice. “The studying I’ve been doing helps me in the office, and things in the office have helped me in my studies,” says Adam.

Such is the progress he’s made since starting at Rostrons that Adam is now actively involved in accounting tasks, such as general bookkeeping and preparing tax returns, under the management of his colleagues. One of the key lessons he has learned is  the importance of a tight-knit team: “You need to communicate and be part of a team, and work well with other people. I’ve always been good at that and enjoyed it.”

Becoming one of the team

Better yet, the Rostrons team has seen how positively Adam has integrated with his colleagues. “Adam has fitted in very well indeed,” says Elizabeth Claxton, a director at Rostrons. “He’s up to speed on activities ranging from data entry on Quickbooks to maintaining our register of clients’ statutory records, and he’s using Sage software to process payrolls for clients. The apprenticeship has really helped him develop and he’s now confident enough to contribute to our weekly team meetings.”

For the firm, however, the apprenticeship scheme hasn’t been without its challenges. High on the list for Rostrons was finding a reputable and well-organised apprenticeship provider. This proved a little more challenging than the company expected.

“You’re looking for an accredited provider whose paperwork properly enables you to understand the agreement you’re entering into, and whose staff will own a problem until it’s fully solved, but it’s difficult to shop around because you can’t be sure what the service level is going to be until you’ve started working with the provider,” explains Claxton. “So if you’ve got a peer group of business contacts, ask them for their experiences, because this can save you a lot of time.”

Adam, meanwhile, has a final word of advice for young people who, like him, don’t want to go to university but aren’t sure what other options are open to them: “You have to look for which path is the right one, and make sure you can find one you think will be good for you.”

Jesse Onslow Norton is a writer, editor and communications consultant at Flibl. A former coder, his editorial work focuses on fintech, digital transformation, policy and regulation. His clients include corporations, governments, startups and SMEs from across the world. Follow him on Twitter @JesseOnslow.

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