People power – ensuring future growth with finance apprentices

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Hiring a finance apprentice is not just a business decision – it’s a very human story too, as Damian Evans explains to Mark Blayney Stuart.

EvansEntwistle is a practice of Chartered Management Accountants based in Penarth, South Wales. Established in 2004, the company offers accounting, tax, payroll, corporate finance and consulting services in public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

You’ve taken on five finance apprentices in recent years – tell us some of their stories

‘One of our apprentices came to us straight out of university – he walked into the office with a CV and was looking for a role. I really admired that go-getting approach: he wasn’t going to sit around and wait for a job, he went out and found it. Over three years, he’s developed exceptionally well – he is studying alongside work. We provide the training package and on-the-job training, and he’s becoming an excellent accountant.’

What would you say is the key benefit of apprentices?

‘Flexibility. For the company, you know you’re taking on someone who’s keen to learn, has an aptitude for work and doesn’t come with preconceived notions of how the work should be done. They’re flexible in terms of how they’ll fit into your company culture.’ For the apprentice, too, there are advantages – ‘you can try the role out and ensure that this is where you want to take your long-term career. You’re not committed to this particular business if you decide it’s not working out further down the line.’ The experience of apprentices is on the whole extremely positive, Damian says; ‘there have been a few mixed results along the way, but those positives vastly outweigh the negatives.’

Do you have some particular innovative approaches to how you hire finance apprentices?

‘When we offer a training contract, we say – you don’t have to start training straightaway, as many other companies will make their apprentices do.’ Instead, Damian offers a six-month contract before training starts. ‘Other firms will make people commit to studying from the start, but this adds pressure from day one. Instead, we say – we will pay your fees, you can study at the right pace, and our investment as a business is secure because the individual agrees to pay the fees back if they leave within two years.’ What this generates in practice is more loyalty – ‘the apprentice is likely to stay with you.’

The investment is sound because the cost of training someone is less than it would be to employ someone already qualified. But for Damian this is not just a numbers game. ‘If I take on someone who is already qualified, they might come in with particular ways of doing things. With an apprentice, on the other hand, you get the opportunity to give them a good training package and environment, whilst knowing that they will fit in with the company ethos and mould to your way of doing things.’

How does the apprentice know it’s the right path for them?

‘There’s a pressure on young people to focus on a career as soon as they leave education,’ Damian says, ‘but for many it can help to think about what you want from life first and be sure that you’re going into the right profession.’ Apprenticeships help you do that. ‘One of our apprentices decided after being with us for a while that she wanted a complete career change and left to be a midwife. And somebody else has realised it is not what he expected it would be. There are many stages to preparing accounts, and you have to understand the building blocks – purchase ledger, payroll, bookkeeping, preparing tax returns – it’s a wide-ranging role.’ If you accept that, you’ll do well, Damian says, but he compares the job to that of a surgeon – you start by helping other doctors and learning the trade by experience.

Are there any skills gaps with your apprentices?

‘IT is perhaps the area where I’m surprised at knowledge gaps,’ says Damian. He’s keen to emphasise how positive the apprentice system is – ‘we wouldn’t take so many on if it didn’t work for us.’ But accountants need to be analysts these days, Damian argues; ‘gone are the days of doing everything on paper. It’s about understanding the numbers and working quickly with the data.’ This is what makes you competitive – ‘the less time you spend on a project, the lower fees you can offer and so both company and customer are happier. Accountants who aren’t so tech savvy might spend twice as long on a project.’

And is taking on apprentices a way of boosting talent pipelines?

Talent flow is a problem in many professional services industries at the moment, because during the recession, fewer accountants and solicitors were trained and employed. Now that the economy is recovering, there’s an insufficient supply of talent. ‘Apprenticeships are a long-term investment,’ Damian says. ‘At some point, they will become fee earners – so although there are costs involved in taking on an apprentice, there is a downstream reward to the company because you will generate better fees for the business longer-term.’

Any industry taking on apprentices will experience similar. ‘If you take on an engineering apprentice, at the end of three years you have someone fully qualified. It will cost you less than employing someone fully qualified from day one, and you also have someone who understands your culture. Taking on apprentices is a win-win solution.’

Tips for taking on apprentices

  • Be approachable. Potential apprentices will come to you with CVs and experience if you demonstrate that you are in the market for new people.
  • See the cost of finance apprentices as an investment. Long-term, you will save money on employing someone already qualified, and they will more readily fit the ethos and working practices of your company.
  • Apprentices are a vital part of the talent pipeline. They are the next generation of skilled workers.

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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