How Skills and Behaviours make a difference to employers and apprentices

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The Skills and Behaviours element of apprenticeships equips employees to make an immediate impact for their companies. Here’s everything employers need to know.

Today’s apprenticeships aren’t just producing apprentices knowledgeable about double-entry bookkeeping and business tax, but those bristling with communication skills, ethical nous and professional scepticism too. Skills and Behaviours are playing a vital role in fast-tracking the acquisition of the essential tools to become savvy, well-rounded finance professionals.

What are the Skills and Behaviours?

Skills and Behaviours represent two-thirds of the Knowledge, Skills and Behaviours (KSBs) component of apprenticeships, which all apprentices will need to demonstrate if they want to pass their apprenticeship.

Whereas the ‘knowledge’ part of KSBs focuses on technical skills such as double-entry bookkeeping, business taxation and how to report financial information, Skills and Behaviours provide them with the know-how and bearing they need to be able to thrive in their jobs. Or, as Sian Phillips, Learning and Development Manager at accountancy/advisory group RSM, puts it, Skills and Behaviours are “all those skills that help apprentices be ‘professional’ within the workplace: communication, teamworking, ethics and more.”

We’ll book them to client projects from the first day. Skills and Behaviours ensure they don’t do anything to damage our reputation

Helen Organ, Early Careers Development Manager at KPMG

Skills and Behaviours is useful to employers because the accountants of the future will no longer be able to solely rely upon their technical ability if they want to progress to senior positions.

“You could have somebody who whizzes through their AAT exams and be technically capable, but if they don’t have good communication skills, we can’t send them out to a client,” says Helen Organ (main picture), Early Careers Development Manager at KPMG. “Likewise, we can’t have apprentices working within the client team if they don’t have good teamworking skills.”

The Skills and Behaviours that AAT apprentices learn will differ by apprenticeship level. Some of the Skills and Behaviours in apprenticeships will include:

Skills

  • Presentation skills.
  • Teamworking and collaboration.
  • Leadership skills.
  • Analysis.
  • Planning and prioritisation (time management and working to tight deadlines).
  • Use systems and processes (whether the apprentice is proficient with IT and accountancy software).
  • Values, ethics and integrity.

Behaviours

  • Adaptability (whether the apprentice is willing to listen and learn).
  • Adding value (engaging with the wider business and contributing to discussions which could influence business decisions).
  • Ethics and integrity.
  • Proactivity (taking responsibility for their work and ability to cope under pressure).
  • Professional scepticism (adopting a questioning mind, which is essential for detecting error and fraud).

How are Skills and Behaviours taught and assessed?

The training provider teaches Skills and Behaviours as part of the apprentice’s 20% off-the-job training, with many employing a skills coach to oversee the apprentice’s progress. It’s the training provider that assesses whether the apprentice has passed their KSBs too. This is usually done via a reflective statement (a statement – or presentation – written by the student, where they discuss what they’ve learned over the course of the apprenticeship).

Helen Bloodworth, RSM’s Associate Director of Early Careers, recommends that employers spend time with the training provider to learn more about Skills and Behaviours. “Try sitting down with both the apprentice and the training provider at the start of the apprenticeship; this will make you aware of the areas you’ll be looking at, the role of the skills coach and what you can expect from the training provider,” she suggests. “If you do that, it’ll make managing the process afterwards much easier because nothing will come as a surprise.”

How do Skills and Behaviours benefit employers?

“Skills and Behaviours are employer-driven; they’re not designed by someone that has no idea what these apprentices will be doing,” says Bloodworth. “They’re very much driven by what apprentices will be doing in the workplace.”

For example, with interpersonal skills increasingly important in accountancy, Phillips notes that the social intelligence that apprentices pick up as part of Skills and Behaviours means they can “flex these skills within the workplace, forge a rapport with people and know about using the correct medium of communication – employers don’t necessarily want students hiding behind an email when they could be having a conversation with their colleagues/clients. It builds connection in a much more effective way.”

Skills and Behaviours can see young apprentices behaving appropriately within the office within a short period of times, sometimes a matter of weeks.

“I see apprentices on day one of induction, and many are 18-year-old school-leavers,” says Organ. “At KPMG, we don’t want to keep them in a backroom for a year, so we’ll book them to client projects from the first day… They hit the ground running and [Skills and Behaviours] ensures they don’t do anything to damage our reputation, such as sending emails that offend clients.”

Many of the skills taught at AAT Level 4 focus on strategic business management, which Organ notes, “gives them a good base level of knowledge, helping them step up to strategic level thinking as they move into their third year [of the apprenticeship].”

For example, Skills and Behaviours also help instil attitudes in students which might not come naturally to them, such as professional scepticism. “Skills and Behaviours give apprentices the opportunity to learn not to say ‘yes’ to everything, but to question things,” says Bloodworth. “If a client tells them they’ve got £500 in the bank, they know not to take this information as verbatim and will challenge it.”

Skills and Behaviours can also provide line managers with a handy guide of what the apprentice should be ticking off in terms of accomplishments, says Organ. “Before KPMG increased its apprentice intake, many performance managers didn’t really know what to expect from an apprentice, but we found the structured approach of KSBs let them know what level the apprentice should be at, and what they should be achieving.”

What’s in it for the apprentices?

Once these Skills and Behaviours have been ingrained in the student, it could give them a competitive edge over graduate trainees. “If you put apprentices and graduates side-by-side, the apprentice is often a step grade above the graduate,” says Organ. “It’s because they’ve got two years’ worth of work experience and have developed their skills and behaviours.”

Bloodworth has also noticed something similar with apprentice students at RSM. “They could be the same age as our graduate trainees but possess so much more workplace skills – all without the debt too,” she says. “It puts them [apprentices] in a really strong position, giving them skills specific to the career they’ll be joining.”

Skills and Behaviours can boost the confidence of apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds, therefore aiding social mobility, says Organ. “For somebody who has worked in the business for 10 years, some Skills and Behaviours might seem like common sense, but if you’re an apprentice who has never worked before and doesn’t have family members who have worked in a professional environment, it can form a checklist of what is expected of you.”

Skills and Behaviours: the employer’s role

“Employers should guide students through the Skills and Behaviours part of the apprenticeship, just much as they do through the qualification/knowledge side,” says Bloodworth. Many employers such as RSM embed Skills and Behaviours within their own internal training courses too.

Students typically sit down every 8-12 weeks with a skills coach (appointed by the training provider) to discuss how they’re progressing. Bloodworth notes that “more often than not, a line manager will attend those sessions too.” These can be held virtually or at the apprentice’s workplace, meaning the line manager doesn’t need to leave the office.

She adds this isn’t onerous work for managers/employees. “I wouldn’t say it’s any different to line managing somebody who isn’t an apprentice because you should be talking to them about their skills and behaviours too,” says Bloodworth.

To truly make Skills and Behaviours work, Phillips recommends that employers “try and encourage regular catchups and career conversations with the apprentices. It’s here where apprentices can analyse some of the skills [they’ve learned] and spend some time reflecting on them. It will bring any gaps to light, as well as give the apprentice open and honest feedback.”

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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