Although the concept of apprenticeships has been around for centuries, the modern apprenticeship system that combines academic learning and practice was introduced in the 1960’s. This system was put in place to prevent skills shortages in traditionally skilled occupations and was considered an alternative path to more ‘academic’ routes such as completing A-Levels and going to university. Now, 60 years on, despite dramatic changes to the apprenticeship system and shifts in the types of industries that can benefit from on-the-job training, negative connotations surrounding apprenticeships and their association with the unacademic still exist. The accountancy industry is no exception to this out-of-date thinking.
Tim Howes, Client Director of accountancy training provider First Intuition, comments on this outdated view. “It appears to me, rather worryingly, that the word apprenticeship is still viewed with scepticism in many quarters. Perhaps the existence of incentives to employers to recruit an apprentice and the setting of minimum wages for apprentices has fuelled such scepticism, but this is unwarranted in my opinion.”
Nowadays, apprenticeships are very credible routes for school or college leavers or anyone looking to change career by gaining a qualification through work-based learning. Apprenticeship programmes have developed and modernised considerably since the 1960’s and have expanded from more traditional trades to programmes that work across different subjects and sectors. This is particularly the case for the finance and accountancy industry, where learning on the job offers a valuable head-start and malleability to develop essential skills that going to university does not.
Tim Howes states that “Apprenticeships are designed by employers for employers and so the technical learning and skills development conveyed via an apprenticeship is key to ensuring that employees have the right skills for the job. No longer the sole domain of the ‘trades’ such as builders, plumbers and electricians, apprenticeships are far and away the most popular medium for training and development in the finance sector”.
The benefits of advanced skills training and the extra support trainees receive on an apprenticeship, together with the financial incentives, makes apprentices an attractive option for many accountancy firms. In the last 25 years the biggest change to the industry has been the dramatic uptake in apprenticeships since 2015. Just five years ago only around 5% of new learners studying with First Intuition were apprentices, today it is more like 80%. What was once a niche aspect of our business has now become the norm.
Despite this, many employers remain needlessly hesitant to explore the option of hiring an apprentice. One major employer in East Anglia who spent several years considering apprenticeships but never quite committing; they worried about the admin and the off-the-job-learning. They finally introduced an apprenticeship programme in January 2021 and couldn’t be more delighted with how well it has gone. They see that First Intuition do most of the admin and they are seeing the massive impact the off-the-job learning is having on the abilities of their team members. Plus, their trainees have passed more accountancy exams in the 9 months since the apprenticeship programme started than in the previous three years!
It is essential that students, employees, and society are correctly educated about the benefits of apprentices and that outdated beliefs are quashed before they start having detrimental impacts on the industry. For example, the misinformation and discouragement around apprenticeships may mean students wanting to go into finance and accounting are prompted down the university route, when in fact employers are hiring apprentices over graduates. So many employers who used to recruit 80% graduates to 20% apprentices who have now reversed those percentages and take on more apprentices who have not gone to university. They question the value of a new recruit holding a degree, even a relevant one in accountancy and finance, preferring to train knowledge and skills from first principles. These misinformed students, many in debt from university fees, will therefore likely struggle to find a job in the industry by the time they graduate.
Furthermore, businesses who do not offer apprenticeships are missing out on the competitive benefits of financial incentives, cheaper labour, and employees with tailored skills training and support. Tim Howes confirms that “in many cases apprenticeships provide a broader range of development opportunities than were provided by employers before their introduction”.