Insider tips on hiring accounting apprentices – from the top 100 employers

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Whatever the size of your company, you can learn from the best – and accelerate your results.

What’s the best way to get results with an accounting apprenticeship at your firm? Here, some of the top 100 apprenticeship employers share how to get started – and just as importantly – how to succeed.

The annual Top Apprenticeship Employers recently announced the 100 organisations they’ve ranked as the best employers of apprentices in England (the British Army came out on top).

The rankings – developed by the Department of Education – recognise businesses committed to onboarding new apprentices, have a diverse intake of trainees and a high number of people completing the schemes.

Free guide – 7 steps to start an apprenticeship

AAT’s free guide to launching an apprenticeship in seven easy steps will walk you through the process, from job description to funding.


Around 25% of the companies are AAT customers and are therefore active in finance apprenticeships.

All the businesses have successfully implemented on-the-job training – while their high ratio of apprentices to other employees (between 20-40% for many firms) is strong testament to the commercial benefits apprenticeships can bring.

Work with a training provider

Charlotte Woodham, HR adviser, Old Mill: “When we decided to launch an apprenticeship, we contacted a training provider. They talked us through it and have since deciphered the jargon, ensured we’ve been doing the right thing with funding rules and have kept our paperwork up to date. Getting to grips with funding rules, for example, requires a lot of reading but training providers will help with this.”

Guy Wilmshurst-Smith, head of training ,Network Rail: “Even an organisation of our size seeks advice from our training providers. For example, we contract out the basic administration of apprenticeships to our suppliers [rather than doing it in-house].

Finding a training provider that is a good fit for your company and your programme is critical to success, as we explain in AAT’s free eBook – 7 Steps to starting your first apprenticeship programme.

AAT help you find a suitable training provider and can provide free, impartial advice on how to structure your apprenticeship.

Recruiting the right way

Woodham, Old Mill (47th)

“When recruiting, you’ll find some candidates display traits which mark them out for future success. Usually, it’s those applicants asking questions about career progression. If you want to build your apprentices into business professionals, consider those candidates who are looking to the future rather than those asking, ‘How quickly can I become a qualified adviser and start earning money?'”

Guy Wilmshurst-Smith, Network Rail (57th): “Make sure you involve whoever will manage the apprentices in the recruitment process. If you don’t, they might not be too enthused about the person they’ll be managing.”

Rob Worrall, head of people, BDO (17th): “[If you’re recruiting from] school-leavers, early engagement is critical; we reach out to students from Year 9/10 onwards. We work with our training providers to access schools directly and advertise on platforms such as social media.”

Advice for smaller firms:

Jez Brooks, Early Talent manager, Moore Kingston Smith (33rd): “You can’t advertise an apprenticeship vacancy on your company website and hope for the best. Forging partnerships with other organisations is important, even for firms of our size. Obviously, you can use the Government’s Apprenticeship Service for recruitment, but also try partnering with organisations such as GetMyFirstJob, Not Going to Uni or Bright Network too.”

Make your firm apprenticeship-ready

Wilmshurst-Smith, Network Rail: “Apprentices don’t just get value from their training, but the people they work with. Before your apprentices arrive, it’s important their line managers understand everything there is to know about the apprenticeship scheme and what their contribution will be. If your line managers don’t know what’s expected of them, they won’t be able to help the apprentice.”

Woodham, Old Mill: “In a typical accountancy practice, line managers will be qualified accountants who are chargeable. However, allocating apprentices to a line manager who isn’t chargeable means apprentices can get more support and development because their managers won’t be in a constant trade-off about how much time they can give.”

Advice for small firms:

Woodham, Old Mill: “Appoint a quality training provider [see below] and sign up for the government’s Apprenticeship Service. Your whole apprenticeship can be run through there if you wish.”

What you can achieve

Worrall, BDO: “There are many myths around apprentices, such as the idea apprenticeships don’t lead to senior management. That’s nonsense. At BDO, several of our senior leaders (including Managing Partner Paul Eagland) qualified as accountants through an apprenticeship.

Another myth is apprentices don’t do ‘real jobs’ in their first years. At BDO, our apprentices hit the ground running from day one. The key is to get them involved in real projects for businesses – they’ll learn invaluable practical skills along the way.”

How to get results quickly

Woodham, Old Mill: “It can take up to a year for apprentices to find their groove. If you don’t set them targets and give them tasks from day one, it can result in them doing menial tasks within the workplace. They need constant movement.”

Wilmshurst-Smith, Network Rail: “Those first few weeks are important: you’ve got to hit the ground running. Nobody wants apprentices standing around with their hands in their pockets with nothing to do. As an employer, establish what work-ready skills they can use in the workplace to engage with their teams.

Also, make sure you give them the equipment they need, such as laptops and phones. Yes, younger generations like this, but it also shows you value them and are serious about the contribution they could be making to your workforce.”

Brooks, Moore Kingston Smith: “We ensure our apprentices do some basic introductory bookkeeping early on, but we also get them out onto client sites as soon as possible. There’s no substitute for seeing the client’s situation and experiencing what it’s like working within a team.”

Advice for smaller firms:

Woodham, Old Mill: “The Knowledge, Skills & Behaviours (KSBs) element of the apprenticeship means apprentices start making the connection between what they’ve learned and how it applies within the workplace. [From the start of their studies], they start to think differently – almost as business professionals, rather than somebody who just does well at exams.”

How to grow

Brooks, Moore Kingston Smith: “Our trainees aren’t just bought in to do the same job, day-in, day-out. We give them the opportunity to experience different industries: healthcare, media, renewable energy, non-profits, and corporate finance. They don’t just do audit or accounting either, but a wide range of tasks. It gives them a broader experience, helps them understand the breadth of the organisation, but also aids career progression too.”

Wilmshurst-Smith, Network Rail: “Apprenticeships often focus on the trainee’s role as an ‘individual’ and their personal journey to success. But it’s important they enjoy that journey! We embed our apprentices within teams at the start of their apprenticeship so they experience the values and joys of working with colleagues. This comradeship continues throughout their time at Network Rail. We have an 85-95% retention rate with our apprentices – camaraderie plays a big role in that.”

Brooks, Moore Kingston Smith: “The last few years have been horrendous for anybody leaving college/school, so it’s important apprentices realise businesses aren’t just work, work, work. We make sure our trainees bring their energy to social events, such as our recent Pride march, summer ball, charity walks and celebrations for our 100th anniversary.”

Worrall, BDO: “When somebody joins an apprenticeship at BDO, they’re never siloed away from anybody else. We always ensure they’re part of a cohort with other apprentices and embedded into a wider team.”

Advice for smaller firms:

Brooks, Moore Kingston Smith: “Apprentices relish the chance to be trusted. If you give them the opportunity to demonstrate what they’re capable of, they’ll get responsibility from the outset and thrive on the trust you’ve invested in them.”

Creating a sustainable pipeline

Brooks, Moore Kingston Smith: “Apprenticeships are a great way of building the supervisory capability at your firm. I was speaking with a group of AAT trainees the other day who are 18 months into their apprenticeships – they were all working as semi-seniors supervising junior apprentices who’d just joined the firm.”

Woodham, Old Mill: “At Old Mill, we don’t take on more apprentices than we need. This ensures we can dedicate more time to growing them within the business.”

Brooks, Moore Kingston Smith: “Get everybody at the firm involved with apprenticeships to ensure that it’s not only managers who are left looking after trainees. It’s written in our job descriptions that all employees should be involved in welcoming and supporting our trainees. We’ve also got a strong support structure: a buddy system, trainee managers, plus a dedicated Early Talent team of five people who provide holistic support from the apprentice’s recruitment through their AAT qualifications all the way to qualifying as a chartered accountant.”

Advice for small firms:

Woodham, Old Mill: “We pay higher than the national minimum wage for apprentices [currently £5.28 per hour]. [It indicates] we want them to do real work, rather than basic admin.”

Advice for smaller firms:

Brooks, Moore Kingston Smith: “If you’re a small team and haven’t got the resources to have a dedicated apprenticeship coach, then the training provider can fulfil this role.”

Photo: Charmaine Cardozo, who studies AAT through an apprenticeship.

Free guide – 7 steps to start an apprenticeship

AAT’s free guide to launching an apprenticeship in seven easy steps will walk you through the process, from job description to funding.


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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