To celebrate National Apprenticeship Week, we look at how becoming an apprentice can transform your career and be a great way to study.
Before she started in the Co-op’s finance department, Robyn Elizabeth had enjoyed an eclectic career which involved working as an art teacher and in funeral care with the Co-op. However, having moved over into the finance team last year, she decided she needed to develop her financial skills. The best way of her achieving this? To ask her employer to put her on a financial apprenticeship.
Today, Robyn is one of 742,400 apprentices in England. The notion that apprentices are school-leavers or are only available in manual, blue-collar trades is clearly becoming outdated: today 46% of apprentices starting in 2018/19 were over 25, while 44% of starts were at a higher level. Just like Robyn, many people are increasingly choosing apprenticeships to change jobs or develop skills within their own company so they can progress into a different role (there’s no upper age limit for applying).
The earn-as-you-learn schemes are also an increasingly popular alternative to university: only half (53%) of 16-18-year-olds now see university as the best career move according to a 2019 survey by jobs website Monster (the same study found a fifth of those survey planned to take up an apprenticeship). They’re available in nearly every sector too, from accountancy to law.
It’s something to ponder during National Apprenticeship Week (8 February). The annual celebration aims to highlight the incredible work being done by employers and apprentices alike; this year’s theme is ‘Build a Future’.
From improving job prospects to asking your boss, here’s the lowdown on everything you need to know about becoming a financial apprentice if you have a job already.
1. Why become a financial apprentice
Training + on-the-job experience + formal qualifications = career progression goals
For those wanting to develop new skills or pivot into a finance career, apprenticeships are an absolute win-win. For a start, you’ll learn the latest accountancy thinking during your training. But instead of this knowledge lying dormant and dusty somewhere in the back of your brain, you’ll get to put these skills to good use within the workplace on a day-to-day-basis, where you’ll also gain valuable advice from experienced staff members and mentors too. What’s more, when the apprenticeship finishes, you’ll also get AAT qualifications to brighten up your CV or LinkedIn profile. This can be particularly helpful if you’ve worked in accountancy for some years, but never had the opportunity to gain formal qualifications before.
Learn business skills as you go
Alongside accounting knowledge, accountancy apprenticeships focus on building up skills and behaviours so individuals have the complete skillset they need to make an impact.
At all levels you will be shown how to analyse, collaborate, work in teams and communicate effectively. You are also coached to reflect on what you have done, which makes them life-long learners.
At Levels 3 and 4, the curriculum includes even more valuable attributes like accountability, adaptability, problem-solving and leadership.
Many who have come up through the apprenticeship route feel the structured approach to acquiring all-round business skills and knowledge is a huge benefit and an advantage over just taking the professional qualification alone.
Enjoy financial freedom
Cash is normally tight when you’re studying. Not so if you’re an apprentice, where you’ll get the chance to earn while you learn. All apprentices over the age of 19 receive the national minimum wage, but many employers choose to top this up. And if you’re moving to an apprenticeship from another department within your organisation, your salary will probably remain the same.
The opportunities are endless
Apprenticeships are offered at many different levels. Got some financial experience but want the qualifications to back this up? Try entering at Level 3; the perfect way to get that first foot-in-the-door. Want to get a degree but never had the chance? Well, degree apprenticeships (Level 6) are the equivalent of a BA (Hons) or BSc (Hons).
You can also undertake your financial apprenticeship in pretty much any area of accountancy you want. The apprenticeships at big four firms such as KPMG and EY give candidates the chance to become chartered accountants and rotate around different parts of the business. You can opt to do an accountancy apprenticeship within the finance team of a large organisation such as the Co-op or Hays Travel, and also public sector parts of the government. Meanwhile, you could learn the trade via the hands-on, day-to-day diversity of a smaller local practice, where’ll you get to experience a wider range of tasks.
2. How apprenticeships work
- Apprenticeships can last anything from one year or (if you’re building your way up) anything up to six years.
- Apprenticeships are graded at different levels, ranging from Level 2 (Intermediate; equivalent to five GCSE qualifications A*-C) to Levels 6 and 7 (Degree; equivalent to a bachelor’s degree).
- During your apprenticeship, you’ll 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 you’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. You will also get the same benefits (such as holiday allowance) as other employees at your organisation.
- As an apprentice, you will be given targets to achieve, and have regular review meetings with your line manager and college/training provider to ensure that you’re making progress.
3. Case study 1
“I started an apprenticeship at 29”
Robyn, 30, from Manchester, is midway through her Level 3 apprenticeship at the Co-op.
“I started an apprenticeship at 29”
Robyn Elizabeth, 30, is midway through her Level 3 apprenticeship. She works at the Co-op’s support centre in Manchester.
“I joined the Co-op in 2016 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 in finance; apprenticeships seemed a good way of achieving that. I constantly asked my manager [in the finance team] about apprenticeships, until our leadership team put forward an opportunity in 2019. I went through an internal selection process, and started in summer last year.
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.
Of course, doing an apprenticeship during lockdown hasn’t been a smooth ride (the Co-op finance team hasn’t returned to the office yet) but there’s still plenty of opportunity to learn in a virtual way.
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.
My advice for others wanting to change their jobs? Just go for an apprenticeship. You can spend years in a career knowing it’s not the right one for you. Apprenticeships allow you to boost your career and do something you want – no matter what age you are.”
4. Case study 2
“Being an apprentice has helped me become a manager at 21”
Jane Bennett, 24, from Sunderland, is supplier payments supervisor at Hays Travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agent
“Unlike my friends, I never wanted to go to university. Instead, I left school at 16 to do an apprenticeship at Hays Travel. Back then, I was a shy school-leaver with no qualifications whatsoever. But today, I’m 24 and working in a management position. Meanwhile, some friends who went to university are now sadly struggling to find jobs or working in roles they’ve never wanted. Whisper it quietly, but I’ve also had chance to earn and save money over the past eight years too.
There have been many great things about rising through the apprenticeship ranks at Hays Travel. One of the best things is the ability to progress at such an early age. When I was doing my Level 2 AAT, I was put on the company’s in-house ‘Rising Stars’ programme, where I learned about becoming a good manager. It enabled me to become a supervisor at 21-years-old.
There’s also great camaraderie on apprenticeships too. I started at Hays Travel with 20 other apprentices, who have now become some of my best friends. Doing the apprenticeship has given me life skills and the job I’ve always wanted; it’s definitely the way forward.”
5. Case study 3
“I started my apprenticeship on a Monday; by Friday I was presenting to the FD”
Eddison Reed-Brown, 18, from Sunderland, has just started a Level 2 AAT apprenticeship at Hays Travel
“I started my A-levels in September 2019, but by the time of the first national lockdown six months later, I decided it wasn’t for me. It was then when I started thinking about an apprenticeship.
I’ve been interested in maths and numbers ever since I was little, so started to focus my career path towards finance. I searched online and eventually found an apprenticeship within Hays Travel’s finance team on a website. After an interview and some tests, I joined in January 2021.
I’ve only been in the apprenticeship for one week, and so far it’s been great – I’ve learned so much. When I started on the Monday morning, I never thought that I’d be delivering a presentation to Hays Travels’ finance director by the end of the week!
For me, the advantages of doing an apprenticeship are obvious. The qualifications I’ll be working towards eventually (Level 3) will be the equivalent of A-levels, but rather than studying full-time in a college, I’ll be doing it hands-on in a working environment, which I enjoy much more.
I’ve only been working at Hays Travel for a week – and all virtually too. However, it’s given me a sense of what’s achievable. I can’t wait to start getting as many skills as I can and working my way up the ladder…”
6. Interested? Here’s how to find and apply for an apprenticeship
Ask your manager but develop a business case first.
If you’d like to move to the finance team of the company where you currently work, ask your HR team or manager about apprenticeship opportunities.
“If you want to do an apprenticeship, put a business case together,” says Bullen. “Try to look at it through the lenses of both yourself and your employer. What value would it add for you personally? And how will it benefit the company? Then, put all of this into writing before sharing it with your boss. It’s a great way of showing how committed you are. Also, don’t assume your manager will know everything about apprenticeships; share some information and statistics to help them understand.”
Look for apprenticeship opportunities online
Try the following websites:
- England: GOV.UK and GetMyFirstJob. You can also use the AAT job search.
- Northern Ireland: NI Direct and JobCentre Online NI
- Scotland: Apprenticeships.Scot and My World of Work
- Wales: careerswales.com
You can also speak to an AAT advisor on +44 (0)20 3735 2434
National Apprenticeship Week takes place from 8-14 February.
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.