How to upskill an existing employee with a financial apprenticeship

Placing existing employees on apprenticeship schemes is a wonderful way of upskilling and retraining them while making the most of financial incentives.

Robyn Elizabeth works for the Co-op: she began in Funeralcare before moving over to the finance department. As she approached her thirtieth birthday, it became clear that she would benefit from deepening her skills and acquiring a qualification to accelerate her progress.

Today, Robyn is midway through her Level 3 apprenticeship. She’s one of 742,400 apprentices in England, nearly half of whom are over 25 when they start. Many are also existing employees who have chosen an apprenticeship to develop skills or progress into a different role.

Upskilling with the Co-op

“I joined the Co-op in 2016,”  says Robyn. “But it wasn’t until I’d worked in two different departments – funeral care and finance – that I decided to pursue a career in finance. It was obvious I needed qualifications and to advance my career.”

After conversations with her managers in the finance team, Robyn was put forward for an internal selection programme, leading to her starting an apprenticeship in summer 2020.  

“Apprenticeships are an immersive experience, which really suits me. I’m a kinaesthetic learner (somebody who absorbs knowledge by doing activities rather than, say, listening to lectures), so picking up skills working alongside others in my current role is perfect.

“It’s also helped me understand how the rest of the company works; I understand the bigger picture and have a greater awareness of what’s happening in the teams around me now.”

Starting an apprenticeship during lockdown demonstrates that learning and staff development doesn’t have to stop because of the pandemic. The Co-op finance team is still remote working, but there’s have been plenty of opportunities to learn virtually.

“If you’re in a job already, like I was, never be afraid to ask your manager about apprenticeship opportunities. If your company cares about the development of its staff, people, your manager is likely to listen to your request, especially if you can explain how it will benefit the company.

“Apprenticeships allow you to boost your career and do something you want – no matter what age you are,” says Robyn.

With National Apprenticeship Week kicking into action on Monday 8 February more companies will want to investigate the advantages of using apprenticeships to upskill or supplement their workforce. Here’s a quick summary.

1. Apprenticeship benefits for employers

The ROI is incredible

Career development can take many twists and turns, but one of the most effective ways of upskilling an existing employee is by placing them on an apprenticeship scheme.

“Apprenticeships are an investment,” says Laura Bullen, learning & development programme manager at the Co-op, which employs over 1,200 apprentices across a wide range of professions. “If an apprentice starts by learning AAT and progresses to become a chartered accountant, it adds great value to the company. The knowledge and skills they gain along the way are invaluable.”

Once an existing employee starts learning through an apprenticeship, it often leaves them hungry to learn more. “We often see people wanting to do another apprenticeship,” says Bullen. “For example, if a financial apprentice is successful at Level 2, it opens doors to Level 3 and beyond. As a company, we want to encourage that kind of personal growth.”

During their 20% off-the-job training, financial apprentices learn the latest ideas and technical know-how in accountancy, which they then can implement at work. This is particularly valuable for those who have not received formal education/qualifications in some years: after all, the ongoing development of such lifelong learning skills will boost productivity. In many finance teams or practices, some brilliant accountants are great at their jobs but have never had the opportunity to gain a formal qualification. Placing them on an apprenticeship will help them achieve that.

With 41% of their head office managers having started as apprentices, Sunderland-based Hays Travel knows a thing or two about how valuable such schemes can be. Progress tends to be very quick, says Carole Hodgson, Hays Travel’s apprenticeship delivery manager. “The transformation of apprentices, whether they’ve joined from school or elsewhere within the company is what impresses me most,” she says. “When apprentices first join, they’re very quiet. But within weeks, their confidence, motivation and enthusiasm swells. It’s not unusual for apprentices to start on a Monday, and then deliver presentations to the finance director the following Friday.”

It’s cost-effective

If your company’s pay-bill is less than £3m, you’ll only pay 5% of the apprentice’s training costs, with the Government covering the rest. This can be very profitable for many firms, says Gareth John, executive chairman of training providers First Intuition: “If you hire a Level 3 apprentice, the training cap is £8,000. Employers will only pay 5% of that, which is £400.” It’s also certainly much cheaper than paying for expensive training courses.

Larger companies (those with a pay-bill of over £3m a year) pay 0.5% of their payroll into the apprenticeship levy, which is put into the Government’s central training pot. However, employers do get a £15,000 allowance to offset against the amount they pay.

For SMEs and large companies alike, placing internal staff onto apprenticeships makes more economic sense than the risk of recruiting similarly skilled staff on a higher salary. Staff retention of apprentices tends to be high too: 90% of apprentices stay in their workplace after finishing their apprenticeship.

Apprentices help the rest of your team upskill

Bringing apprentices into a finance team or practice is a great opportunity for existing staff to develop supervising or mentoring skills. Bullen remembers one Co-op colleague who took on management responsibilities leading apprentices. “He’s had the best year of his career and unlocked his talent for nurturing and coaching others,” she says.

Many firms have reported that other staff members have been inspired to gain AAT qualifications after seeing apprentices thrive in the workplace thanks to their 20% off-the-job training.

“Our apprentices definitely keep us on our toes,” says Hodgson. “They regularly share knowledge from their off-the-job training, and feedback into how we run our own training sessions differently.” They also teach existing staff in new digital skills including social media.”

The 20% off-the-job training can be tailored towards your organisation

Apprentices are required to spend a fifth of their overall apprenticeship on education, such as theory

or writing assignments. But this doesn’t mean they have to spend one day a week

away from the workplace. Off the job training can actually be delivered at an apprentice’s workplace.

The training provider or college can tweak this training to make it relevant to your firm’s needs. According to one government survey, this bespoke tutoring has resulted in 86% of employers saying their apprentices had developed skills that were pertinent to the organisation.

“The 20% off-the-job training is flexible,” says Bullen. “Things they do in the job can contribute as well, such as one-to-one development conversations, spending time shadowing other colleagues or learning new processes.”

They’ll receive industry-recognised qualifications

“When apprentices gain professional finance qualifications, it adds real value to our finance team,” says Bullen. “Not only do they have the knowledge that being a credited finance professional brings, but they also develop skills and behaviours too… Offering an AAT apprenticeship is a way of giving people the building-blocks to follow a finance career.”

2. How apprenticeships work

  • Apprenticeships can last anything from one year or (if the apprentice is building his/her way up) anything up to six years. 
  • Apprenticeships are available at seven different levels, ranging from Level 2 (Intermediate; equivalent to five GCSE qualifications A*-C) to Levels 6 and 7 (Higher; equivalent to a bachelor’s degree).
  • An apprentice will spend 20% of your time (maybe every Monday or Friday) on off-the-job training, which usually takes place at a college, university or training provider. This is where they’ll receive AAT tuition, which can be tailored towards the needs of your organisation. The rest of the time (80%) will be spent developing new skills in the workplace.
  • All apprentices aged 19 and over will receive the national minimum wage. However, many employers offer their apprentices a competitive salary.
  • There is no upper age limit to apprenticeships and they can be undertaken by people at any stage of their career journey.
  • Staff don’t need to be promoted or have a new job title in order to be placed on an apprenticeship. However, they must sign an Apprenticeship Agreement and Commitment Statement.

3. How to ensure a successful apprenticeship

Spend time with your apprentices in the workplace

“If you want a motivated and developed apprentice, invest your time and support with them,” says Hodgson. “Invest in your staff and they’ll invest in you!” 

Fine-tune your selection process.

When using apprenticeships for new employees, Bullen advises that “selection is key.” “Firstly, the way you advertise your apprenticeship opportunities is critical; be clear about what you’re offering, the benefits and who you’re looking to attract. Think about how you can identify potential through the interview process to identify individuals who demonstrate behaviours which align with your company values.

“I’d also consider the value that apprenticeships can add to existing colleagues.”

More information

National Apprenticeship Week takes place from 8-14 February

You can order an employer information pack here which explains apprenticeships, getting registered and recruiting in greater depth.

You could also speak to an AAT adviser, who can help decide on the right apprenticeship for your business and find local training providers.

Call +44(0)20 3735 2434.

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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