How Scrutton Bland took control of the talent pipeline

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Growing accountancy practices must recruit while retaining the right people. Here’s how one specialist accounting firm is doing it.

Many firms face challenges in finding staff to fill qualified accountancy roles at middle and senior level. Scrutton Bland, an award-winning team of specialist local accountants serving the whole of East Anglia, made the strategic decision to grow their own talent instead, by expanding their apprenticeship scheme.

“It’s certainly not unique to us but we have found it more and more difficult to recruit qualified accountants,” says James Tucker, Business Advisory & Cloud Accounting Partner in charge of training at Scrutton Bland. “The more senior they are, the more difficult they are to find. As our business is growing, we need to recruit new staff to meet demand from clients and provide the best service.

“We decided to prioritise bringing in the best quality school leavers to start their apprenticeship programme so that we can grow our own talent and solve the recruitment issue via a different route,” he explains.

Scrutton Bland: nurturing talent through apprenticeships

The firm has a team of accountants, auditors, business advisers, corporate finance advisers, tax advisers and insurance brokers with offices in Ipswich, Colchester, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge and Diss. Among the sectors the team of 200 employees serves are agriculture, charities, technology, education, construction, leisure and hospitality, land and property, and transport and logistics. Scrutton Bland is a growing firm, having increased its headcount by 12% since March 2022 and adding a new specialism in e-commerce.

James says the practice has used apprenticeships for more than a decade but in the last few years has increased its annual intake of apprentices from seven to 10 across the business advisory, audit, tax and corporate services teams.

Inside the apprenticeship program

“It’s about the talent pipeline and ensuring that people understand and appreciate the culture of the organisation as well,” James says. “By using apprentices we can develop the soft skills and the people and client management skills that our new staff members will need when they run teams and work with clients. By the time they are fully qualified as accountants they are well-rounded and in a great position to further their career and progress onwards and upwards.” 

Among the former school leavers who have made a successful career with Scrutton Bland is Lucy Jennings, who joined the firm straight from school at 18, and who five years later is just one exam away from being Level 7 qualified.  

“She is already looking after a portfolio of clients and making her way up the career ladder,” says James. “She rises to the challenge and makes the most of every opportunity we give her.”

The selection process works, because almost all the trainees have stayed on to progress through the firm and learn on the job. As well as the apprenticeship scheme, Scrutton Bland also takes on career changers and parents who are looking to return to work.

Its approach to apprenticeships

The firm provides the same apprenticeship programme for all starters, although it does vary the AAT Level they study depending on whether they are a career changer, school leaver or they are a graduate with a relevant degree. Most start out at AAT Level 3 or Level 4.

Apprentices typically complete Level 3 or Level 4 in around 15 months. Currently, the firm has 21 people studying for AAT and they expect all of them to stay on and progress towards ACCA or ACA once they have completed AAT Level 4. 

The apprentices work in an office and attend college one day a week on courses taught by First Intuition. Being part of a larger group provides them with a cohort of friends and colleagues.  

“They get the chance to study in a group which can be great in terms of support, especially as some of the trainees are just 18 and are starting a job for the first time,” says James. “It builds relationships, not just within their direct department, but also throughout the firm. 

“As we have a high number of former students who are now qualified, there is also a really wide pool of people who can provide them with support in the office. In the future, we are also looking at putting in a more formal mentorship scheme so that we match our trainees up with the right people.” 

How Scrutton Bland benefits from apprenticeships

“Our apprenticeship programme is about finding the right people, encouraging them to think for themselves. It gives them the opportunity to do things differently,” says James. “Technology is playing a very big part in our industry and the manual processes that people used to do when I started training as an accountant don’t exist anymore. 

“Our accountants need to be tech-savvy in order to use the technology effectively, but more importantly they need to have good people skills. At our recruitment Open Days we dispel the myth that accountancy is all about numbers – it is actually about people.”  The mechanical task of putting together accounts and tax returns is becoming less important and the new cohort of accounts are learning to use data to help clients grow and develop their businesses.

“We are looking for people who want to interact with clients and build relationships. By building the people skills in our trainees and giving them the opportunity to develop in areas that they are interested in, it naturally builds our business as well.”

When it comes to school-leavers, they have the advantage of building relationships outside the business. Scrutton Bland runs a young professional networking group which includes lawyers, land agents and bankers, helping networking at all levels of the firm.

In conclusion

Scrutton Bland’s forward-thinking approach to apprentice recruitment means that they have secured their future talent pipeline. They are developing promising young people into managers and team leaders, creating home-grown talent that fits with the firm’s culture and drives forward growth and profitability.

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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