Danielle Walmsley Azets talks about how apprenticeships have boosted business – and her own career.
Everybody knows the role of an apprentice involves learning – but not everyone expects apprentices to be making an impact by solving pressing business problems, bringing colour to company culture or ascending to lofty roles.
But in the Coventry office of accountancy firm Azets, Partner Danielle Walmsley regularly sees apprentices developing innovative solutions for problems encountered by senior colleagues and generally making an impact.
“We definitely see our apprentices as future leaders,” says Danielle. “Any growing business needs to be investing in this.”
Azets currently has a network of over 160 offices in the UK and internationally. Having become a top ten accountancy firm just 18 months ago, the firm views apprentices as playing an significant role in its expansion plans, employing over 400 apprentices nationwide. In an industry where recent research has shown nearly three-quarters (74%) of accounting firms are suffering because of a lack of skilled workers, apprentices can be a long-term strategic investment.
“I started as an apprentice. Now I’m a partner managing them and constantly seeing the benefit they bring.”
One area they are making their presence felt is in technology.
“As we adapt to new software, occasionally some of the apprentices ask, ‘Why are you doing that when you could be using this [system/app/hack], which could save you hours of time?” says Danielle.
It’s a big boon for Azets, especially as the company and its clients – just like many other businesses during the pandemic – are in the process of speeding up their digital transformations.
“This new generation are like a sponge when it comes to new technology: you can just give them a new system, and they’ll get their head around it instantly,” says Danielle. “As accountancy goes digital, and we teach our clients to do the same, the skillsets these apprentices have right now will be invaluable. Also, because apprentices are immersed in the nuts and bolts of the company from the very outset of their careers, they develop an innate understanding of how that firm works.
“When apprentices combine their on-the-job training with a hard work ethic and professionalism, you’ll often find that they progress much quicker than graduates,” says Danielle. “Putting accounting knowledge into practise within a working environment often yields great results when you’ve learned it from day one, hands-on within the company itself.”
Danielle believes Azets’ young apprentices benefit the firm in other ways too.
“Our company culture is thriving because of our apprentices,” she says. “They bring a breath of fresh air, helping to create a team environment by making people more upbeat and happier, having a laugh and a joke. They’re also really proactive about socialising, getting involved with team-building, volunteering and social committees.”
Danielle knows all too well about the advantages of accounting apprentices: she was previously one herself. In 2008, Danielle gingerly stepped into Azets’ Coventry office as a 16-year-old apprentice, having already decided not to study A-Levels.
“It was a shock; I’d gone from pocket money to earning a £7,500 salary,” she remembers. Within two years, Danielle had moved from living with mum and dad, to buying her own home. Career-wise, her progression was just as rapid.
“As Azets grew, I grew with it, going from an office junior making cups of tea to being a partner of a large office, managing my own client bank and bringing in new apprentices,” she says. Part of Danielle’s wide-ranging remit today includes managing several of the Coventry office’s 25 apprentices (the office takes on three to four apprentices every year).
The new apprentices at Azets are typically school-leavers, starting at AAT Level 2 and reaching Level 4 after 18 months. During this time, they’ll get exposure to Azets’ clients, plus learn about tax returns, VAT and corporate tax. After that, they can progress to Level 7 through ACA. However, the primary goal for Azets, just like many other firms offering apprenticeships, is for the apprentices to join the firm as accountants one day.
“Our intention is for the apprentices to be our employees; they’re not just there for the term of their apprenticeship, and that’s it. One-third of our roles are filled with internal promotions,” says Danielle, who notes most of the trainees remain with the firm.
Helping apprentices realise their full potential may require some inspirational management. Having role models within the firm who they aspire to be like – is invaluable. says Danielle.
“We provide apprentices with regular support by offering constant feedback and refreshing their continuing professional development (CPD).”
This feedback process can help nudge them towards success. “Sometimes apprentices don’t see their progression because they’re just doing their job,” says Danielle. “It’s only when you sit apprentices down and say, ‘Last month when you started this job, you couldn’t do this task but now you’re helping others on it’, that it makes sense and they get a confidence boost.”
“Because we view our apprentices as future leaders, I want to be involved with them on a day-to-day basis and ensure they’re on the right path,” says Danielle. “It’s worth it: if you invest the time, they’ll support you for as long as their career continues.”
For help and assistance in setting up an apprenticeship go to our apprenticeship pages.
For more information about trainee routes in audit, tax, forensics or corporate finance, as well as current opportunities, visit the careers section.
David Nunn is Content Manager at AAT.