We need to change perceptions of apprenticeships – especially for entry into professional jobs

Anthony Walters
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Graduates Celebrate On The Southbank
Many young people will realise the academic path isn't for them (Source: Getty)

Barely weeks after the drama of A-level results, new university students can probably be forgiven for not interrupting the bacchanalia of Freshers’ Week to think too hard about their future careers.

Yet the first term of university and independence can be a tumultuous time, and many bright young students will likely find themselves rethinking their choices – and whether the academic life is for them. Which is why it’s more important than ever to remind them of the options available for a fulfilling career beyond the traditional degree path.

Proving the value of apprenticeships

Many of this year’s school-leavers are probably unaware of the new apprenticeships levy set to be introduced next year. In fact, most of them are unlikely to know very much about apprenticeships at all: YouGov research we commissioned at ACCA in March found that 31 per cent of 16-18 year olds have received no careers guidance about them.

Even among those who had received some information, the wide perception was that apprenticeships were not for them: believing they only applied to manufacturing or technical vocations, or offered only limited financial returns and professional opportunities. For a globe-trotting generation raised on Instagram and American teen dramas (where college is a natural extension of school), degrees are still widely seen as a vital, if extremely expensive, path to a successful and enriching career.

Rising demand for accountants

At ACCA, the feedback we receive from our members time and time again is that the stock of the professional accountant is continuing to rise in the modern workplace. In the cautious years following the financial crisis, where the need for good governance has been bitterly learned, major firms are increasingly looking towards the sound strategic counsel and rigorous analytical skills associated with accountancy for leadership at board level: not just as chief financial officer but increasingly as chief executive.

Of course in the twenty-first century globalised workplace, with digital disruption becoming a constant fixture, accountants have to also be much more than skilled number-crunchers. Emotional intelligence, creativity and a flexible approach to international business practices form part of the essential tool-kit of the modern finance professional, who may find themselves applying their strategic thinking everywhere from a multi-national corporation to a dynamic tech startup navigating those exhilarating, tricky early years.

In an age, too, where almost every profession is threatened in some way by the prospect of corporate down-sizing and technological development, accountants are in demand everywhere. From the heart of the UK government still trying to understand the sheer scale of possible Brexit negotiations through to emerging markets balancing rapid-scale growth with uneven development forecasts, it is accountancy which is looked to for forward-thinking vision and insight.

Alternative routes to entering the profession

Yet this lucrative, intellectually demanding and varied career remains highly accessible through apprenticeships as well as a range of alternative routes. The Professional Accountancy/Tax Technician standard introduced earlier this year, which ACCA helped develop alongside many major large and SME employers, offers school-leavers a route into the sector and the chance to learn the skills, knowledge and behaviours necessary to thrive in business.

The apprenticeships levy, which comes into force from April 2017, will require large companies with an annual pay bill of over £3m to contribute to training for young people. Hopefully, it will encourage more businesses down this path of nurturing young talent through opening up opportunities beyond graduate training schemes. Yet we also need to make sure that the government’s target of delivering 3m apprenticeships by 2020 does not just become another box to be ticked at the expense of the quality of the transferable skills learnt by the apprentices themselves.

World-class skills

A focus on transferable skills is important for two reasons. First of all, the concern expressed by many of the young people in the YouGov survey was that an apprenticeship would only equip them with a narrow set of skills relevant to highly specialised positions which they may not wish to pursue.

Second, given the familiar problem of low productivity levels in the UK more generally, it is more urgent than ever that those entering the workforce at any age are already prepared with the world-class skills which will enable British business to continue to compete internationally.

At the same time, graduates and those who wish to go down the academic route also need encouragement and support to enter the increasingly important global accountancy profession. In 2015, ACCA was the first professional accountancy body to offer a Master’s qualification in partnership with the University of London; KPMG’s recent announcement that it is working with the Open University to provide a full-service apprenticeship scheme based around the needs of employers is also a step in the right direction. A real positive from our survey was that 71 per cent of respondents thought that apprenticeships could be an attractive option, under the right circumstances.

Of course, many of 2016’s student intake will thrive in their studies and campus life long after the initial culture shock and traffic-cone stealing has worn off. Yet for those who find it isn’t for them, who opted out or who are seeking a change in direction after academia, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about seeking routes into a thriving business career. These may or may not be the best years of your life – but a promising start is available either way if you’re willing to put the work in.

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