When the alarm clock goes off and 19-year-old Luke Johnson has to get out of bed, shower, and put on a suit, ready to catch his train into the City, he may think wistfully for a moment of his friends from school who are still snoring away at university.
“I did have a great offer from Warwick University to study for a degree in maths,” explains Luke, who has 15 GCSEs and As and A*s in four A-levels. “But Deloitte offered a career path while studying, so I had no hesitation in accepting”.
Luke is on Deloitte’s BrightStart Higher Apprenticeship Programme, which has given him the chance to bypass university and leap straight into a professional “earn-while-you-learn” career to qualify as an accountant within five years.
He is one of a growing number of smart school-leavers who have turned their backs on three-year full-time university degree courses in favour of combining study with work in the City of London.
And no wonder. Thanks to the trebling of university tuition fees in 2012 and the rocketing cost of accommodation, university students can expect to run up an average debt of £44,000 by the time they graduate.
Learning to fly
Despite the suggested reduction in university fees in the most recent budget, the cost of study is a huge millstone around the necks of those trying to get their fledgling careers off the ground.
“Apprenticeships are a great way to kick-start a person’s career and a stepping stone into the world of work,” says Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, which has risen to the challenge set by government to employ apprentices as 2.3 per cent of its workforce.
“Apprenticeships empower people to try out different jobs, experience a range of sectors, and use their experience to discover new ways into employment,” she says.
“So we continue to work hard to improve apprenticeship uptake across London and to give new career pathways into jobs for people from all walks of life.”
This year, the corporation has advertised for 20 apprenticeships within its own organisation, mostly in business administration, customer services, IT, and financial services.
And it also offers a free apprenticeships service which works to place apprentices in businesses, so far including CIBC Standard Bank, Daiwa Capital Markets, Lionsgate Films, Aram Bartram Accounts, and the Houses of Parliament.
The corporation expects to receive up to 70 applications per apprenticeship advertised, so competition is stiff.
And more and more big City businesses, from accountancy firms to banks, are now offering similar apprenticeship routes for school-leavers.
Luke now spends around a fifth of his working hours studying for his ACA qualification, and the rest of the time travelling the country looking after four clients in a range of industries. “I enjoy being in a working environment, where I can put the skills I’m learning into practice,” he says.
“With experience at one of the big four accounting firms, I decided I could learn a lot more than I would have at university, and hopefully have better career prospects.”
As long as he continues to pass his ACA exams and show commitment to the job, Luke’s opportunity is hopefully the beginning of a successful career with Deloitte.
But the quality of apprenticeships can vary from employer to employer and, despite persistent calls from the Independent Schools Council and professional bodies, the system is currently unregulated.
Potential applicants are well-advised to ask a lot of questions, particularly to find out whether or not an apprentice is held in the same regard as a conventional graduate when the permanent positions are dished out.
Applicants should also make sure that business experience is genuinely career-enhancing, and not just low-level grunt work.
Do the maths
Salaries can be a deal-breaker too.
Luke’s apprentice salary easily covers his living expenses and the cost of commuting daily from his home in Essex. He hopes to move closer to the capital before long and can afford to do so.
“After a year as an apprentice with Deloitte, you are on roughly the same salary as a graduate joining the firm would be, so at 19, I’m more than happy with the pay,” he says.
Apprentice salaries can vary wildly – and the Bank of Mum and Dad may still be called on to make an investment in the early stages.
However, apprentices generally need less financial help than university students – a maintenance loan of £11,345 for students living away from home to study in London for the academic year 2018-19 in many cases barely stretches to the cost of student accommodation, let alone baked beans and fruit ciders.
With life-time earnings expected to outstrip those of their graduate counterparts, the young apprentices are the next generation of City high-fliers.
In fact, they’re already on the runway and preparing for take-off.