New figures have poured cold water over the government’s commitment to creating three million new apprenticeships by 2020. But despite apprentice numbers falling, small practitioners have found the “grow your own” apprenticeship route an attractive way to plug the recruitment hole currently felt in the profession.
Government statistics released in February showed a decrease of apprenticeship starts during the first quarter of 2017/18. Compared to figures in 2016/17, this equated to a 26.5% drop. But this was not as severe as the drop experiences in quarter four in 2015/16 and quarter four 2016/17.
Although the figures suggest a dip in interest, the generation apprentice research report from Grant Thornton presented a much more positive outlook for apprenticeships, particularly amongst young people (77% surveyed) who believed apprenticeship schemes offer good career prospects.
Enthusiasm was equally shared by employers, with half surveyed saying that they plan to recruit more apprentices in the next five years, and 79% pointed to the apprenticeship levy as fuelling their eagerness to hire more apprentices. But not everyone has been excited by the levy; the ICPA reported back in January on its Industry Insights page how the apprenticeship levy has “made things more complex”.
If I look at the time of people in the building and think about the people we've employed over that twenty year period, the backbone of the firm today is people that joined me as apprentices
'The backbone of the firm'
Sherborne-based practitioner Nick Hunt is a great proponent of apprentices – he started out as one himself when he was 16 years old. Speaking to AccountingWEB in conjunction with National Apprenticeship Week, Hunt and his firm have unquestionably benefitted from supporting the apprenticeship scheme.
“If I look at the time of people in the building and think about the people we've employed over that twenty year period, the backbone of the firm today is people that joined my practice as apprentices,” said Hunt,
The recruitment crisis
Accountancy practices, particularly smaller practices, have suffered a recruitment crisis in recent years. While the apprenticeship process may be slower than recruiting a qualified or part qualified, firms like Hunt’s are seeing benefits from finding their own talent. And as the role of an accountant shifts, it’s easier to mould emerging talent than break old habits.
“Firms locally have taken the view that we can't recruit the people we need therefore we're going to have ‘grow our own’,” said Hunt. “One reason why we keep doing apprenticeships is because the profession and the work we do is changing and it is changing at a very fast pace.”
“For people who have been in accountancy for ten years, you've got to change their mindset, their way of thinking, their way of working, to adapt to that change. Whereas apprentices who've only been with you for two or three years, you're growing them from the right way from the outset.”
Apprentices who've only been with you for two or three years, you're growing them from the right way from the outset.
How to pick an apprentice
But as the work accountants do changes, as does the training apprentices require. Any Answers threads on apprenticeship routes and academic standards regularly crop up from practitioners tussling with the right way to train apprentices.
But the days of throwing an apprentice in at the deep end are no more. Instead, Hunt prepared an internal training manual two years ago, which he regularly refreshes as the role of the accountant evolves. But more than academic prowess, how successful an accounting apprentice is always boiled down to attitude, Hunt said.
“We do look at academic achievement in how well we think they will cope with the studying and the requirements that AAT and ACCA puts on them,” said Hunt. “But first and foremost is the attitude: their commitment to learn, to do a good job, and their desire to understand the fact that they're embarking on a long training programme to fully qualify - attitude and desire are very important.”
Diversify your talent pool
Apprenticeships can also play a bigger role in the profession beyond recruitment. As the ACCA flagged in the recent purpose and the profession report, accountancy firms and bodies should play a greater part in attracting a more diverse talent pool. “Government-backed funding means you can provide high quality training as an incentive to unlock access to a more diverse pool of ambitious local young people,” said Claire Bennison, head of ACCA UK.
Apprenticeships have become a major focus for ACCA. Speaking to AccountingWEB after developing its level four and level seven apprenticeships Bennison added: “practice will benefit from their insights – for example their digital knowledge – helping it to keep pace with an evolving profession.
“The combination of high-quality training applied in the workplace, and an opportunity for apprentices to develop within your working practices, mean apprenticeships really do work.”
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's practice correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.