Apprenticeships: your top questions answered

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Interested in an apprenticeship? Want to know how they can boost a career and leave you debt-free? Here are the top questions asked at a recent AAT webinar.

What are the advantages over university?

“Because your employer is effectively paying for your qualification, the chance to earn a disposable income and emerge from the apprenticeship without any university-level debts hanging over you is a real benefit,” says Clarke. “It’s also great for career progression too. Apprentices can progress onto chartered qualifications and achieve managerial positions long before their counterparts at university.”

Some employers say that apprentices progress their careers more quickly than graduates because they are given responsibility and gain real-world experience much earlier on.

What are the career prospects like?

“The myth that apprenticeships are low-level and second-best to a degree is probably the biggest myth that there is,” says Catherine Walsh of accountancy practice Buzzacott.

“Our AAT trainees are able to be qualified with a professional qualification ahead of their peers that go to university. By the end of their 60-month training contract, they will hold not only the AAT qualification but also, the ACA qualification and the Level 7 apprenticeship, which is the equivalent of achieving a master’s degree.”

The verdict at accountancy firm RSM is equally emphatic: “You can start pretty much any occupation nowadays on an apprenticeship with no difference to your career prospects than somebody that’s been to university,” says Helen Bloodworth, Senior Manager – Professional Qualifications.

How can I progress my career as an apprentice?

“The majority of businesses are serious about investing in the future of apprentices, so they give them the opportunity to complete AAT qualifications [with the aim] of promoting them to a senior role within the business,” says Clarke.

“We see our apprentices as our future finance leaders,” confirms Pam Hawkins, Finance & Accounting Apprentice Scheme Lead at the MOD’s Defence, Equipment & Support agency. She also notes that 75-80% of apprentices achieve promotion within the first year of their jobs.

How much could I expect to be paid as an apprentice?

Your pay will depend on your employer. As a minimum apprentices must receive the National Minimum Wage.

An apprenticeship is a long-term commitment for companies. Because they want apprentices to be motivated to stay with them after completing their learning, many will offer higher pay.

“Many businesses decide to pay their apprentices significantly more than the minimum wage because they want them to feel valued and potentially develop them as future leaders”, says Anthony Clarke, Business Development Manager at AAT.

I’m 38 – am I too old for an apprenticeship?

Whether you’re 22 or 62, you can still start an apprenticeship: there is no upper age limit. In fact, nearly half (46%) of those apprentices who started in the UK in 2018-19 were over the age of 25.

“There’s absolutely no barrier from an age perspective,” says Steph Simcox, Deputy Chief Finance Officer at Worcestershire County Council, who points out “we have people from 18 to their 40s”, including a law graduate and former police officer.

What’s the recruitment process like?

Each company’s recruitment process is different. But if you apply for an apprenticeship at a larger firm, it could include the following:

  • Basic tests – accountancy firm Mazars, for example, gives successful applicants an online aptitude assessment, which includes numerical and verbal reasoning tests. In the civil service, you may be asked to complete a situational judgement test (a multiple-choice paper which asks you to choose the most effective responses from a range of hypothetical scenarios).
  • An interview – either online or in person. These tend to be easygoing. “For many applicants, the apprenticeship is their first foray into the world of work, so we’ll ask them about their experiences and ambitions,” says Simcox. “We want to see a spark and their passion for working in finance.”
  • Assessment day – after an interview, you could be invited to an assessment day, where you can expect a face-to-face interview, group tasks, a presentation and more tests. Before Covid-19, these assessment days usually took place at a training facility, hotel or at the company’s offices. Nowadays this may take place virtually. Top tip? Be yourself. “We’d like to see you demonstrate your personality,” says Simcox. “You can’t act for eight hours a day, so don’t try to be somebody you’re not.”

What qualities are apprenticeship bosses looking for?

“Businesses aren’t just looking at academic qualifications, they’re looking at the person as a whole and how they fit in with that organisation,” says the AAT’s Anthony Clarke. Here are some qualities outlined by leading apprenticeship employers:

  • Communication skills
  • Numerical ability
  • Problem-solving
  • Collaboration
  • Time management skills
  • Passion, enthusiasm and curiosity
  • Verbal/written skills
  • An understanding of the company’s values, culture and business. Tip: “Before the interview, visit the company’s website to find out more about them. If you understand what they do and what’s involved with the apprenticeship, it’ll show assessors you care and are invested in the scheme” (<Freya Horrocks, finance strategy & development manager, Network Rail>).

What does an average day look like for an apprentice?

One thing’s sure: as an apprentice, you won’t be doing the same stuff, day-in, day-out. Many firms rotate their apprentices around different departments within the organisation, so they gain experience in areas such as audit, VAT and payroll.

“This gives apprentices a holistic insight into how finance works, as well as the company,” says Network Rail’s Horrocks.

Apprentices also spend 20% of their time (usually one day a week) in off-the-job training, which takes place at either a college, training provider or at the workplace.

Can I do a part-time apprenticeship?

If you need to spend time away from the workplace due to parenting or caring duties, you can still become an apprentice. Part-time apprenticeships will need to be agreed by your employer, but you will need to spend a minimum of 16 hours a week on the scheme. One popular option is to extend the length of the apprenticeship, from 12 months (minimum duration) to 24 months.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also made many employers more amenable towards flexible working, says Clarke

“For me, as long as the work gets done, it doesn’t matter when it gets done,” says Simcox. “One of our apprentices is a parent. Because of childcare, his working day isn’t always 9-5, so he sometimes works in the evenings instead.”

What kind of support do apprentices receive?

Again, this differs by company. At Network Rail, the support network for apprentices includes a line manager, apprenticeship scheme manager, talent coach and a mentor, who all help put together a personal development plan. New apprenticeships are also allocated a ‘buddy’, usually an apprentice who started the year before you. There’s also ‘coffee roulette’ where apprentices can chat with people in the organisation they’ve never met before.

Apprentices at Mazars receive regular morning catch-ups to gauge how their workload is going, along with mental health support should they need it.

How to build a great career with an AAT apprenticeship

Have you considered an apprenticeship as a route to gaining your qualification and getting the skills needed to progress your career? Do you have unanswered questions about how they work, who they are for and what roles that can lead to? Look no further, hear from us, along with Network Rail and Whyfield Accounting Services, to find out the answer to these and many more questions.

Watch now

Can I apply for an apprenticeship with my employer?

If you’re already in a job, you may want to develop your career prospects by applying for an apprenticeship with your current employer. If your company doesn’t have an apprenticeship scheme, you may need to speak with your manager about starting one, possibly developing a proposal or business case.

“Before speaking with your boss, get your facts together first,” says Clarke. “Think about the questions your boss is likely to ask, such as ‘What qualification do you want to study?’, ‘How will this add value to the business?’ and ‘How will this make you better at your job?’ Luckily, most bosses realise your interest in apprenticeships demonstrates a commitment to the organisation and a desire to progress.”

Your employer might also be interested in the Government funding that businesses receive for apprenticeships. It’s worth suggesting that he/she contacts the AAT, who can tell them about apprenticeships, how funding works, plus give advice on starting a scheme.

Do I need to have an accountancy qualification?

“The short answer is no,” says Clarke. “The point of apprenticeships is that you develop these skills and acquire these qualifications while on the job. Some firms may look at GCSEs and A-Levels, but in recent years many firms adopt a ‘CV-blind’ approach [where the recruiter is given no information about the candidate’s educational background]. It’s more about how you fit in with the company’s ethos and values, rather than a piece of paper with a list of qualifications on.”

“We have a number of school-leavers join our apprenticeship scheme who have non-numerical A-Levels, as well as graduates who have never studied accountancy or finance before,” adds Jayne Lambert, professional development advisor, Mazars. “We can help them develop accounting skills; it’s more important somebody is a right fit for the role.” 

However, should you want to enter at higher levels, then “having an AAT qualification will absolutely be a bonus, but it’s not a given that accountancy qualifications will get you onto apprenticeships,” says Clarke.

What’s the point of completing an apprenticeship when most on-the-job experience will be carried out over Zoom?

With working from home likely to be in place for many companies until the autumn, some may question whether the work experience they acquire over Zoom and Teams will be valuable. However, Clarke points out there hasn’t been “any negative impact on exam results by those students who have done virtual apprenticeships.”

Some apprentices have developed innovative solutions to the challenges of remote working. At Worcestershire County Council, Simcox has noticed apprentices regularly “work with their webcams switched on, chatting away to each other as if they were in an office.”

Where are apprenticeship vacancies advertised?

Some useful links for apprenticeship vacancies and advice:

Individual company websites such as

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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