How the audit sector is turning to apprenticeships to fix the talent pipeline

The audit sector is increasingly turning to apprenticeships to solve talent problems, and AAT is playing a big part.

Whenever new recruits begin at RSM, they receive a visit from the CEO, Rob Donaldson, who gives an inspiring talk chronicling his own journey at the audit firm. As he tells them, 30 years ago he was also in their shoes, about to start studying AAT as a trainee. And now? He’s the boss.  

Rob’s career path – he later built an M&A offering at the firm and led RSM’s national corporate finance and restructuring advisory business – illustrates what could happen when a new starter enters an organisation and rises through the ranks thanks to the knowledge they amass through training and while on-the-job.

His story also shows there’s a special quality that comes from employees that have been nurtured in-house. It’s particularly important in audit, where it can take many years to acquire the accuracy and investigative skills needed to thrive in the profession.

In recent years many audit firms have established their own internal apprenticeship schemes (Mazars was the latest, launching its scheme last autumn) to harness this. Here, leading audit bosses tell us how apprentices can bring diversity and a youthful approach to their teams, as well as being a wellspring of bespoke talent for many years to come.

Apprentices are perfect for audit as they can be trained towards the skills and values of the firm

Many businesses believe apprentices add greater value than university graduates or experienced employees because their skills can be developed in line with those required by the company. As such, it gives organisations an opportunity to mould the workforce they want, at a much earlier stage. It’s no different in audit.

“Our school-leavers often tend to be successful later down the line, because they’ve learned from the ground-up, are very pliable and hungry to learn,” says Miranda Smith, head of professional development at accountancy firm Mazars, which introduced its first audit apprenticeship in September 2021.

“When we invest in their AAT training, they really do bring these skills and knowledge back into the workplace. Not only that, but they also support others by mentoring new school-leavers and apprentices.”

Accounting giant KPMG offers an apprenticeship scheme within its audit team. Helen Organ, early career development manager comments:

“Apprentices can be better than graduates in the sense they’ve acquired more work experience while at KPMG,” she says. “Because they are on a five-six-year programme, we can shape how they work, meaning they can get a deep understanding of our business and the clients.

“By doing these junior and foundation tasks, we can build the workforce from the bottom upwards. By the time they finish the scheme, they have the equivalent of a graduate, plus they’ve got five-six years of experience behind them.”

Apprentices can strengthen the diversity of audit teams

With many youngsters from less affluent backgrounds choosing not to pursue a career in audit because of the traditional recruitment process or the financial barriers of university study, apprenticeships are a brilliant way of giving them hands-on experience in the sector.

Bringing these apprentices into an organisation can not only address any issues surrounding lack of diversity in the workplace, but also make good business sense. “It’s really important our workforce reflects the people we work with,” says Helen Bloodworth, senior manager, professional qualifications at RSM. “If you’ve got a whole mix within an audit team, it helps build relationships with the client, ensuring the job gets done in an effective manner.”

“It’s really important that we don’t want to shape all young recruits the same; we don’t want robots,” adds KPMG’s Organ. “Having the apprenticeship scheme within audit has definitely made the workforce more diverse.”

Audit needs tech-savvy talent: many apprentices have these skills already

Young apprentices may not have stacks of work experience, but they do possess skills that more senior colleagues don’t, such as a grasp of tech. This obviously helps any audit teams helping their clients undergo digital transformations. Audit teams encourage apprentices in using this tech knowledge, with Mazars’ Smith noting that “younger people are coming into the office with great digital skills – we try to give them space to innovate and nurture any ideas they have.”

Audit apprentices pick up some first-rate accounting skills via their training

KPMG has run an audit apprenticeship alongside its well-received KPMG360° scheme for two years. Today, audit apprentices work towards AAT Level 3 and 4, before moving onto the Level 7 ACA or CA qualification. In the first two years they’ll also complete AAT’s Level 3 Advanced Bookkeeping certificate. “We feel that when students come in at 18-years-old with no real accounting background, doing Level 3 Advanced Bookkeeping provides them with a foundation-level understanding of what KPMG and accounting is all about,” says Organ. “It’s also a nice transition from school learning to the valuable technical skills they acquire at AAT Level 4.”

“The AAT qualification opens up so many doors; it’s a brilliant foundation and building block for their careers,” says Sian Phillips, learning and development manager, RSM.

Audit apprentices also pick up important business skills too. “The skills that audit apprentices acquire, such as understanding how accounts and financial statements come together and where those numbers come from – plus the exposure of going out with clients and looking at their accounts – is invaluable,” says RSM’s Bloodworth.

… but audit apprentice training isn’t just about the numbers

Stepping into the flashy offices of a large accounting firm like Mazars, RSM or KPMG can be intimidating for school-leavers. With little work experience, many youngsters unsurprisingly have no idea how to draft a professional email or say the right thing in an office meeting. Accounting and auditing firms realise this too, which is why they also offer personal development programmes that teach softer skills such as communication, confidence, presentation prowess and looking after mental wellbeing alongside professional AAT qualifications. As RSM’s Bloodworth explains, students learn “everything on how to write emails to using the phone for what it was invented for: speaking to people rather than Instagram!”

Apprentices help energise audit teams with their enthusiasm and a youthful approach

“I find the apprentices are willing to put their hands up to assist with any internal events or any external recruitment events,” says KPMG’s Organ. “We recently inducted a cohort of audit apprentices and asked our second-year internal audit apprentices to facilitate virtual induction sessions. Despite the apprentices being fairly junior, there was a huge volume of them who volunteered to do this. They then ran the sessions on KPMG systems and values with such confidence; I was really impressed…” 

This enthusiasm rubs off on the work that apprentices produce…

An essential part of being an auditor is spending a period of time on-site at the companies whose accounts they’ll be examining. It’s no different for audit apprentices. At RSM, apprentices work at clients from “day one” according to Bloodworth. RSM’s audit teams typically consist of four or five people, including a first-year AAT student, who will be tasked with jobs such as inspecting Excel spreadsheets. They can expect to spend anything from one week to several months working with such firms.  

Audit apprentices will get the opportunity to work with some interesting companies, such as tech start-ups, public services, famous retailers or multinationals. There could even be some travel too…  It largely depends on which company they’re auditing, but audit apprentices are required to travel to the firms they are auditing (Covid-permitting). Although most of this travel is within the UK, RSM audit apprentices have previously travelled to the US, Middle East, Africa and Europe. “Pre-Covid, university students would have a gap year,” says Farrah Beveridge, RSM’s national talent acquisition manager. “But if our apprentices can do some of that travelling while earning a good wage, without the university debt [that saddles university students], it can be a massive win-win for them.”

There’s another advantage too which adds to the workplace <joie de vivre>: they’re earning money while their university counterparts are spending £9,000 a year on tuition fees. “The apprentices really appreciate the fact they can earn while learning, without racking up student debt,” says Jayne Lambert, professional development assistant manager at Mazars. “They can still get professional qualifications, but also given responsibility quite early in their careers: something they really enjoy.”

What to look for when recruiting apprentices for audit

Those embarking on an audit apprenticeship may need a different mindset and personality type to that required on standard accounting apprentices

“Analytical skills are really important in audit as you really need to understand the client,” says Mazars’ Smith.  “Ensuring the audit apprentice has the confidence and ability to challenge clients [on their accounts] is also critical.”

“Being a self-starter is so important,” adds RSM’s Beveridge. “They’re not at school anymore with a timetable, so they need to be self-motivated and able to self-learn.”


Photo shows Gabriele Scavinskyte, a successful participant in the KPMG 360 Apprenticeship Programme in which apprentices work in different areas of the business such as Tax, Audit and Advisory whilst studying for professional qualification.

More on audit apprenticeship schemes

AAT apprenticeships

https://www.aat.org.uk/apprenticeships/employing

KPMG’s Audit apprenticeship

kpmgcareers.co.uk

RSM’s School-leaver audit apprenticeship

rsmuk.com

Mazars

jobs.mazars.co.uk

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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