How BDODrive is turning apprentices into business advisors

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BDODrive has run a successful apprenticeship scheme for many years. However, in recent times, it has been doing things differently. It has shifted emphasis to focus on how it develops its next generation of talent. 

The change is bearing fruit and helping to attract and retain people in an era of staff shortages.  

“Historically in the industry students have been seen as a way of getting cheap labour to help do the lower-end activities,” says Mark Sykes, head of BDODrive. “But we want to develop the next generation of business advisers. Not every accounting firm has made that shift.” 

Digitisation is driving a new approach 

Changes in technology are driving developments in the apprenticeship scheme. “Technology is now being used to process invoices. So rather than training people to enter information, we’re training them to use technology and think outside the box if there’s a problem,” says Sykes.  

“We’re enabling that digital mindset. It’s also thinking about what businesses want from accountants. In our experience, they want someone at the end of the phone who has a broad understanding of the issues that they face.”  

As well as learning how to use software packages such as Xero and Receipt Bank, apprentices learn about broader issues. For example, understanding why a business is not able to get to its end-goal or thinking about more practical matters such as whether to be VAT-registered or whether to run a company car.  

Apprentices learn from business partners… 

To learn business skills, trainees often accompany partners into client businesses. That way, they can hear first-hand about the challenges organisations face. “It’s up to them to start getting under the covers of those businesses,” says Sykes.  

“Are they trying to sell online, or retire? Are they trying to grow overseas? Rather than just ticking a box and moving on, we want students to think about how clients are going to do that so they can build up their experience, alongside the technical training and the access to the digital tools.” 

Already there are signs of the benefits this is bringing.  

…And partners benefit  from apprentices 

One example of the approach working is a meeting Sykes and a apprentice held with an electronic music business that was struggling to be commercial.  

“I found myself cut out of the picture because the trainee understood the business and the sector better than I did and started putting forward ideas,” he recalls. “Now I’m in the background if they need help but that trainee is acting as a mentor to them. Historically there’s no way that would have happened.” 

Developing students’ soft skills 

There’s also been a strong emphasis on developing softer skills, including getting students used to calling up clients.  

“We’re getting them used to the business world and to communicating with each other and with clients,” says Rebecca McClure, director of operations at BDODrive. She gives the example of a trainee who was only a few months out of school who was phoning up customers and suppliers of a business which had gone into administration. “The level of confidence that someone one year into their AAT contract had in dealing with that was fantastic,” she says. 

Benefits of realworld experience – Jessica’s story 

Jessica Bantock is a trainee business adviser at BDODrive, based out of Ipswich. She joined the apprenticeship scheme in September 2018 and is currently on level four of her AAT qualification.

“I work on a huge variety of clients from sole traders to large consolidation accounts,” she says. “I don’t think you can beat working with real clients who have actual problems in the current market. Understanding the way they operate and seeing how our partners speak to clients is invaluable.”  

In her first week, Jessica became Xero-certified and has since undertaken regular training on how to use the system. She’s also received training in how to network and other softer skills, which have given her more confidence when meeting clients.

“I definitely feel that I’m being developed as an all-rounded person rather than someone who is able to key numbers into a computer,” she says. “I feel like I’m being moulded into a proper adviser.” 

Encouraging critical thinking 

Students are constantly encouraged to question and challenge, adds McClure.  

“I always say to students that when I was an apprentice I had to photocopy the board pack, so I read it and understood what was happening in the business,” she says. “Even when they’re doing something that seems very mundane and boring they can take something from it.” 

There’s also a strong emphasis on understanding the implications of decisions and situations, rather than just carrying out tasks. 

“With something like payroll, it’s a case of thinking about what could be the issues with changing bank details and why could that be a risk to the business,” says Sykes. “That type of coaching style comes through. It’s not about being able to do it but about being sharp and understanding the dynamics.”  

BDODrive also provides students with a project based around a dummy business called Doggy Dentures, which challenges them to think about everything that they would need to know to advise the founders of the company. 

Creating a culture of feedback 

Giving feedback is another important element.  

“Millennials want information the whole time and are used to people putting ticks or likes on Instagram or Facebook,” says McClure. “We’re trying to bring that into the world of work; we use Yammer internally to try to get people to share information.” 

The new approach is creating a generation of more competent business advisers, better-placed to handle the demands of the sector. The new approach has also seen BDODrive retain people for longer once they have completed their ACCA qualifications. “People are staying with us because they’re getting exposure to lots of different businesses, and really getting to work alongside them,” says McClure. “We have really good retention rates, and they’re very good advocates of what we do, and are proud to be part of it.” 

Earn while you learn 

For Stephen Hancock, a trainee business advisor at BDODrive based in Manchester who joined the apprenticeship scheme in September 2018, it was the prospect of earning while working that appealed. “I wanted to be an accountant since I was 14. If I’d gone to university I would still have had to do my ACCA after I graduated,” he says. “This way I get my qualification and get paid at the same time, and I get on to the ACCA quicker.” 

Stephen believes working in the business has also helped him with the AAT qualifications. “There will be times when you learn something at college and you might forget it. Here we’re doing it eight hours a day every day so there’s less chance it’s going to slip through your memory.” 

He certainly has no regrets about the route he’s taken. “I personally really enjoy work,” he says. “By the time I’ve qualified I’ll have three or four years’ more experience than I would have if I’d gone to university,” he says. 

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