Network Rail’s innovative approach to creating accountancy managers of the future

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Jenna Hayward, Senior Accounting Services Manager at Network Rail explains why recruiting apprentices from diverse backgrounds is so valuable.

“It is a good thing to be able to recruit people from different backgrounds and with different skills because it really does make a difference,” says Jenna Hayward, Senior Accounting Services Manager at Network Rail. “In our most recent intake we have taken on someone who studied dance and who has never done finance or business in school or college. She’s settling in really well; she is engaged, great at communication and really outgoing. That is a real asset in our team.”

Why does Network Rail hire apprentices?

Network Rail owns and manages most of the railway network in Great Britain, including some of the biggest railway stations in the country. It is one of Britain’s biggest employers and has 42,000 staff across England, Scotland and Wales. The finance department is 500 strong and is a central function within Network Rail and does a lot of transactional activity on behalf of the rest of the business.

“Getting people with the right behaviours and values far exceeds the academic ability because we can teach them how to do the job,” says Kathryn Hurst, Financial Controller at Network Rail. “When an apprentice comes in with the right attitude, knows how to speak to customers and is willing to learn and they take pride in their work, that is 80% of the job. Having people like that on the team really helps to drive great outcomes.”

How AAT apprentices solved the talent pipeline shortage

Six years ago, Network Rail identified that the flow of new accountants coming into the finance department via accounts payable and accounts receivable was starting to dry up. This was because the service centre had changed the approach to recruitment and was taking on more data input clerks rather than trainee accounts.

“We used to have a pipeline of people which is where Jenna and I came from,” Kathryn explains. “When that stopped, we identified that we needed to do something different about our recruitment strategy. We decided to launch and apprenticeship programme. This is the fifth intake and it has been so successful that we have increased our programme from three to four apprentices annually. Those people whom we first recruited are now in management accounting roles, managing their own teams. There is a lot of scope for career progression.”

She says the strategy has been successful because of the new digital skills that the apprentices bring, their enthusiasm to work and learn, and the great grounding that the AAT Level 3 and 4 qualifications provide. This forward-thinking approach to nurturing talent means that when the new accountants have qualified they can be moved on to more senior roles within the organisation.

How are the AAT Apprenticeships implemented?

Network Rail uses The Apprentice Academy, an external company, to advertise the apprenticeships, source candidates and manage the training. The successful apprentices will have a half a day a week in college, and are supported in professional and personal development, coaching and workplace skills. While most come from schools and colleges after A levels, the scheme is also open to career changers and mature students.

Ensuring accountants are real world ready

“The AAT foundation training gives them a great grounding in the knowledge and skills they need in their day to day work,” Jenna says. “If they want to continue their studies, then we do offer them CIMA or ACCA. As we are a transactional team, we naturally have a high turnover of staff as people at the more junior level start to progress and find new opportunities. When vacancies do come along we already have people who have both the technical knowledge and the soft skills as well. That means they can go straight into a role that involves engaging with customers, building relationships and taking ownership of the work.”

Apprentices are given more responsibility and are encouraged to look at processes and identify improvements which could have a direct impact on the productivity and efficiency of the organisation.

What is the experience for apprentices?

The structured training programme has proved extremely popular and feedback from current and former apprentices is extremely positive:

“Overall, the apprenticeship has been the best decision I could have made.  It was very important for me to get real life experience so I could progress in my career, this was definitely achieved and Network Rail and The Apprentice Academy are super supportive!  The development opportunities are amazing and every apprentice is a valued employee, everyone from previous years’ intakes progressed into roles higher up. It’s definitely a great path to choose if you don’t feel like uni is right for what you want to achieve”. 

“It was helpful seeing how apprentices in the years above me progressed so I could see a path to how I could in the future too. I felt like I learnt a lot during it which helped set me up to study CIMA now and move into different roles throughout Network Rail. It has been a great way to continue gaining qualifications whilst getting real world experience in a role to develop soft skills which allowed me to progress up through Network Rail”.

Progression and staff retention

The apprenticeship programme has been successful at creating young enthusiastic staff who understand the culture of the organisation and who want to stay to pursue opportunities within Network Rail.

“At the end of the training programme we have well-rounded assistant accountants who are ready to take on more senior roles,” says Kathryn. “They stay with us because there is a lot to learn and they have the opportunity to work within different teams and specialisms. In return, we have the continuity and talent pipeline which is so vital to the success of the organisation.”

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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