7 misconceptions about accountancy apprenticeships

A career in accountancy doesn’t have to start with a university education. Apprenticeships offer an ideal route for those keen on an accountancy career.

Here we debunk some of the possible misconceptions you might have about an accountancy apprenticeship – and get you started on the path towards a career you’ll love.

1. You have to be a school leaver

When you think about apprentices, you probably think about teenagers opting for the combination of work and study rather than building up massive student debt. Emily James is one: she started as an apprentice with BDO straight from school aged 18.

Now aged 20, she says: “Lots of my friends have gone off to university. At first not everyone understood why I was choosing to be an apprentice. But now some even regret not doing the same as me. I’ve learnt so much so quickly and I’m getting the kind of qualifications which will help me if I ever decide to move into industry.”

… Places can be over-subscribed

You don’t have to be a school leaver to be an apprentice – you just need to be at least 18 years old. However, do be aware there is huge competition for places. BDO had 11,000 applications for 600 trainee roles last year. This year it is taking on 150 apprentices across the UK as part of its trainee programme. Most will be straight out of school or not far off – but there are exceptions to this, say BDO.

Would-be apprenticeship employers will be looking for keen people who are ready to learn and are committed to the work involved in combining study and work. World-weariness and a know-it-all-already won’t get you a place.

Key takeout: You don’t have to be young to be an apprentice. But bear in mind you will be competing with lots of others – many of whom will be young with fresh-out-of-school keenness.

2. You need to be a maths genius

 It’s not all about being great with figures. But you will need to have good qualifications. BDO wants candidates to have at least three A levels at grades A* to C as well as Maths and English GCSEs in grades four to nine.

Communication skills are vital. BDO Managing Partner Paul Eagland (himself a former apprentice) says: “Traditionally I would have said that intellect (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ) were the two most vital skills to a successful career in accountancy. A high IQ is needed to solve clients’ difficult technical challenges. Equally, business is based on relationships which flourish with honest and transparent communication and that’s why EQ is so important.”

… And there’s more

Eagland adds: “There is now a third skill needed: what I would refer to as digital quotient (DQ). Advancements in technology and digital processes have disrupted almost every aspect of daily life, created completely new markets and are challenging traditionally successful organisations. DQ is the area where a skills challenge is most likely but our apprentices have grown up in a world where “the internet is king” and where technology is at the core of almost everything they do.

“Learning how to utilise new technologies is second nature so taking on apprentices means from the very beginning of their career our advisers of the future are fully prepared to meet the demands of our clients now and going forward”.

Key takeout: You don’t need to be a maths expert. There are other skills just as important including digital skills.

3. Apprentices won’t climb the career ladder as fast as graduates

Not true says Lewis Scott, Digital Marketing Manager for website “not going to uni”. “Apprentices will typically find themselves progressing on the career ladder at an accelerated rate to their peers who have taken different routes. This is due to the experience they gain which makes them a lot more reliable to employers.

And James Brent, Director at Hays Accountancy & Finance says: “One of the huge benefits of apprenticeship schemes is that they help young professionals become familiar with an industry and a company, which can really help to get ahead in your career. Once completing an apprenticeship, your experience in addition to your qualification has the potential to springboard your career in accountancy.”

BDO’ Eagland adds: “BDO’s Leadership Team is made up of a number of former apprentices, including me, so I see us all as an example of how you can climb the career ladder with or without a university education.”

Key takeout: Apprentices progress just as fast as graduates.

4. University is better if I want to be a top accountant

University is a great experience. But it’s also an expensive one: in 2018, the typical graduate had debts of £36,000. Do you really need a degree to be a top accountant? Brent says: “Specific qualifications are certainly required for many career paths, but going to university or taking time out solely for study isn’t the only way to land an accountancy role.  

“One of the huge benefits of apprenticeship schemes is that they help young professionals become familiar with an industry and a company, which can really help to get ahead in your career. Once completing an apprenticeship, your experience in addition to your qualification has the potential to springboard your career in accountancy.”

In addition, accountancy graduates gain invaluable experience: they will be working on real business projects and learning from experts in the field. This might be more appealing than the lecture theatre/academic study of a university course.

Key takeout: Earn while you earn or accumulate student debt: that’s apprenticeships versus degrees.

5. I won’t make any money

Scott adds: “Apprentices get apprenticeship wages and upon completion of said apprenticeship, they will be paid at a competitive rate. We often see ex-apprentices actually being paid more simply because of their experience and advanced skill set.

While completing an apprenticeship, you’re being paid and learning. At university you’re paying to learn and amassing large amounts of debt. There are benefits to both of course, and it’s all down to the individual person and personality type to decide which would be best suited.”

Key takeout: You’ll earn as you learn and progress on the career ladder as fast as a graduate.

6. I won’t be as employable as a graduate

Yes you will – actually, you could be even more so. And you’ll be able to swap industries, companies and sectors as you wish. The AAT qualifications you’ll earn as an apprentice are world-renowned and will open doors to you across many industries and sectors. Scott adds: “Apprentices can switch careers seamlessly due to the nature of an apprenticeship.

Learning soft skills in a working environment results in the growth of a person and we can see young people really finding themselves whilst completing an apprenticeship.  

7. Employers want graduate accountants

Not necessarily. Says Scott:  “We speak with employers every day and they all say the same thing: apprentices are more employable than graduates. Employers value experience and understanding over anything. An apprenticeship will give you the educational knowledge, hands-on experience, the understanding of a working environment, understanding each individual role and also the ability to adapt and utilise your own skills to be the best.” 

In today’s working environment there is a place for both graduates and apprentices. “Not everyone wants to go to university” says Eagland. “Many prefer the idea of not having student debt and being able to ‘earn while they learn’, so we think supporting apprentices is incredibly important in order to create a diverse workforce that represents society as a whole.”

In summary

Being an AAT apprentice is the start of an exciting career as an accountant. It is not the easy option: you’ll be studying while working and to get to a Level 4 will take typically three years. And there is healthy competition for apprenticeship places.

But the rewards are great: no accumulated student debt; practical, not just academic experience and learning ‘soft skills’ – interacting with others in the office, dealing with customers – you wouldn’t get at college.

Further reading:

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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