Career profile: Finance apprentice

Being a finance apprentice is not just about figures and spreadsheets.

Jade Cheshire is a Finance Apprentice at Network Rail. In our interview, she talks about how she decided to become an apprentice rather than going to university; how she has enjoyed studying with AAT, the challenges and excitement of working for the public sector, and how communication is a big a part of her job.

She is a finance apprentice at Network Rail, the organisation which owns and manages the infrastructure of most of the railway network. It is a public sector body which is part of the Department for Transport. It does not have any shareholders and any income which it receives is reinvested in the railway structure.

What is your role as a finance apprentice at Network Rail?

Currently, I manage the accounts for the contracts and procurement department. My role involves looking at the profit and loss account, the balance sheet and accruals. The job requires practical knowledge and the ability to communicate effectively with business partners. I speak to business partners on a daily basis, as there are hundreds of them. There are many companies that are interlinked with Network Rail and that aspect really interested me.

What is the most interesting part of your job?

Being part of a public sector organisation means we need to be clear about how and why we spend money, as it is taxpayers’ money. Recently I have been involved in efficiencies, which I found really interesting. In my role I have to show efficiencies in a very specific way and give presentations to the team on efficiencies. There is an approval process, which means I can be approving efficiencies for millions of pounds. I have been seconded to London, where I was involved in looking at different financial performance measures, and through that I learned that I really am an OPEX girl and that is what I’m really interested in.

Why did you decide to follow this career route?

My A levels went well so I had two options – to go to university or to get a job. I had an offer from Warwick University to study Business Studies. I also thought about a third option in the form of an apprenticeship, because my brother was looking for an apprenticeship and I liked the idea of having practical experience and no debt.

I put all the pros and cons on a whiteboard to help me decide. The advantage of an apprenticeship was that I would get paid and I wouldn’t be in debt. Plus, I would have experience and be learning on the job. I knew that many graduates struggled to get experience, and therefore to get a job, at the end of their courses.

The apprenticeship would also give me qualifications. Even if I went to university I would still have to do my qualifications afterwards. I would be three years ahead of everyone else and I would be able to stay near my family and friends. Although there was a part of me that wondered if I was missing out on university, in the end the apprenticeship was the right decision for me.

What made you choose Network Rail?

There were two apprenticeships that I was interested in – at Santander and at Network Rail. I chose Network Rail because I fell in love with the public sector.

I attended the interview for the apprenticeship at Network Rail and I was so nervous. I had never had a proper interview before. The moment I walked in the people were so professional and polite. I have made some really good friends, and we go out to the pub together, we volunteer together, making good memories. I’ve met people all around the country and I did a year and a half apprenticeship in London and really enjoyed the experience.

What have you been studying?

I have completed all my AAT exams now (Level 3 and 4). I am just completing my end point assessment.

I went to school at Denbigh School, Milton Keynes for my GCSEs. In sixth form  I spent one year at Royal Latin School where I was taking my A levels. I didn’t enjoy the pressure and my grades suffered so I decided to go back and begin lower sixth again at Denbigh School the following year. This paid off because I did well in my A levels, getting an A in geography, an A in economics and a BA in Business Studies.

I left school at 19. I am dyslexic so sometimes studying can take me longer than other students but I have learn some techniques which make studying work for me.

Why did you decide to pursue this career route?

Choosing AAT qualifications as an apprentice was the most efficient path for me to become a qualified accountant. I knew I wouldn’t have any debt and I would gain valuable experience. I have met some wonderful people from different businesses and gained lifelong friends. I have also learnt accounting skills which help me with my job and in my personal life.

I did a lot of research. I knew I wanted to be an accountant and for me an apprenticeship was an excellent, accelerated path to get there.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

Network Rail manage and enhance the railway infrastructure, which is vital for the economy. I enjoy working with business partners. I like providing reports and analysis that is tailored specifically to my customers’ needs.

My workplace gives me study leave and provides training sessions to help me with both my technical ability and soft skills. If I ever have any questions about anything my colleagues are always only too happy to lend me a hand.

As an apprentice I have had time to learn and reap the rewards of absorbing knowledge from as many different people and roles as I can. It has given me the confidence and knowledge to my work to a high standard, which has been recognised by my colleagues.

How has AAT helped you?

I am 23 and the apprenticeship at Network Rail is for five years. In the process you do Level 3, Level 4 and then CIMA. I have been supported in pursuing all the options so that I can become as qualified as I can be. I get a lot of support being an apprentice, and I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia at school, and the support that I had from AAT really helped calm my nerves. The apprenticeship also provides good study leaves, and you get two days off before your exams and you also have college days.

AAT has given me a friendship group and lifelong friends that I can learn with. It is such a well-regarded qualification. It provides benefits in every aspect of my life.

What skills do you need?

There is a lot more communication in the role than I first thought. You need to be able to communicate to the senior team, gain information to create the financials from business partners and to use Excel.

You need to be able to learn new software quickly and have an open mind to new concepts and new environments. It has been a challenge working from home and using remote meetings and emails to communicate.

Any tips on how to break into the profession?

It is good to have something that you are really passionate about. I’m really interested in arts and crafts and badminton and that’s helped me make friendships. Get good at using Excel, as that will make you very valuable employee.

When you go for interview, make sure that you’ve thoroughly researched the company. I learned from my interview preparation that health and safety was a very big aspect for Network Rail. I knew how many bridges and miles of track they had and I mentioned that in the interview. I had a notebook of questions, because asking questions shows that you’ve done your research. I could also mention that at school I had taken part in an accounting competition.

What do you do when you are not at work?

I love to travel. Pre-Covid I managed to visit 12 countries in 12 months. I also bake and love spending time with my friends and family.

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Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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