The path to success in accountancy has traditionally involved a university education. However, the evolving landscape has brought about a pivotal transformation: the resurgence of apprenticeships as a compelling alternative for aspiring professionals. Santiago Bedoya-Pardo reports

Apprenticeships, once overshadowed by conventional university routes, have re-emerged as a dynamic avenue for individuals seeking entry into the financial sector.

These programmes offer a blend of theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience, bridging the gap between academia and practical application. Historically, the allure of a university degree has dominated career aspirations in accountancy. However, the evolution of the industry, coupled with the changing aspirations of the new workforce, has elevated apprenticeships to a prominent position.

Their structured approach equips participants with not just academic understanding, but also the practical skills essential for success in the dynamic finance landscape.

The looming human capital crisis

The accounting profession is grappling with a persistent talent deficit, an issue exacerbated by recent global uncertainties.

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The Covid-19 pandemic, economic fluctuations and shifting workplace dynamics have accentuated job-security concerns among qualified professionals. As a result, skilled individuals are increasingly cautious about exploring new opportunities, leading to a scarcity of qualified talent in the job market.

Tristan Finch, director at TPF Recruitment, sheds light on the gravity of this crisis, emphasising that the quest for stability among skilled professionals has intensified the talent shortage. This human capital crisis underscores a pivotal need for innovative solutions to replenish the talent pool within the accounting domain.

Finch says: “Talent supply has always been a particular issue in the field, at least for the past eight to twelve years. There’s a large number of people out there who are either qualified or are getting the right qualifications, yet they’re not necessarily looking for new opportunities, opting instead to stick to their current employers.

“Job security has become a key fear for people, leading to a shortage of qualified candidates in the market.”

The apprenticeship resurgence: addressing the talent gap

In response to this scarcity of talent, apprenticeships have emerged as a promising solution. They offer an avenue for skills development, and also present an opportunity for individuals without traditional university education to access and excel within the profession.

Apprenticeships not only equip participants with technical skills but also foster crucial soft skills like adaptability, communication and problem-solving. They stand as a beacon of opportunity, addressing the industry’s urgent need for skilled professionals while offering an inclusive platform for individuals from diverse educational backgrounds to embark on a rewarding career in accounting.

UCAS: Pioneering apprenticeships in accounting

UCAS, renowned for its pivotal role in higher education admissions, extends its influence beyond traditional academic routes with its Advanced Apprenticeship in Accounting framework. The programme acts as a cornerstone for aspiring accounting technicians and assistant accountants, offering a comprehensive blend of theoretical knowledge and practical experience.

The initiative revolves around the premise of developing trainees within the accounting domain, cultivating their proficiency across diverse financial realms.

Apprentices engaged in this framework often commence their journey in supportive roles within accounting firms or various finance departments across industries, thereby laying a robust foundation for professional growth.

Addressing industry needs

With an annual intake of 4,000 individuals, UCAS’s apprenticeships play a pivotal role in addressing the talent deficit within the accounting profession. Of these, around 1,500 apprentices are enrolled in the advanced and higher-level frameworks, signalling a growing interest and recognition of the value these programmes offer in nurturing skilled professionals.

The structure of these apprenticeships involves a dual approach, merging on-the-job training with academic pursuits. This comprehensive methodology allows apprentices to acquire job-specific skills while pursuing qualifications, fostering a holistic understanding of accounting principles and their practical applications.

Gateway to professional qualifications

UCAS’s apprenticeship framework not only serves as a launchpad for a career in accounting but also lays the groundwork for aspiring professionals to pursue higher-level qualifications.

The programme’s recognition within professional bodies such as ACCA, CIMA and others offers apprentices a pathway to exemptions from specific examinations, streamlining their journey towards professional accreditation.

Furthermore, the structured assessment, a blend of external examinations and workplace evaluations, aligns with the demands of higher-level studies, providing apprentices with a robust foundation for future academic pursuits in accounting.

Insights from RSA accounting apprentices

Tayla Johnson, an accounting apprentice at RSA, embraces the opportunities now available to her.

Her experience showcases the dynamic nature of apprenticeships, providing a platform to explore various facets of accounting.

Testifying to its practicality, Johnson emphasises the accelerated learning that occurs through real-world application.

She says: “What I love most is the variety of tasks I do in my role. I can try different things and decide the areas I do and don’t like. I learn so much more quickly because I actually apply what I’m learning to real, everyday situations. Balancing your day job and the study side does mean you need to plan and be organised, however.”

Mike Dawson, a finance apprentice at RSA, echoes the sentiment, expressing a preference for practical application over traditional classroom learning. His pursuit of an accredited qualification underlines the significance of acquiring industry-aligned knowledge at each level.

He adds: “I wanted to be in a practical environment rather than a classroom so I could apply my knowledge straight away. Working towards an accredited qualification is also really important to me as I want to know I’m building the right knowledge for the industry, and I’m qualified at each level along the way.”

Crafting the ideal apprentice profile

An aspiring finance and accounting apprentice embodies a passion for finance’s intricate dynamics and a fascination with numbers.

This profile extends beyond numerical proficiency, encompassing analytical thinking, adeptness with data and an organisational flair for meeting deadlines. The apprentice’s proactive approach and logical problem-solving skills form the bedrock of success in this vibrant domain.

Aligning aspirations with apprenticeships

UCAS’s robust framework not only aligns with industry demands, but also caters to aspiring professionals, offering a practical and applied approach to learning. Endorsements from apprentices such as Johnson and Dawson, coupled with insights from industry leaders and academic institutions, underscore the transformative potential of apprenticeships.

Beyond the theoretical, these programmes cultivate a culture of hands-on learning, equipping individuals with the diverse skill set essential for success in accounting and finance.

Deloitte and KPMG

While UCAS champions apprenticeship programmes, other prominent players in the accounting and finance domain, such as Deloitte and KPMG, adopt diverse strategies for talent acquisition and professional development.

Deloitte’s inclusive approach stands out, focusing on widening talent pools and fostering diversity in the profession. Its progressive stance involves blind recruitment practices, aiming to reduce unconscious biases in candidate selection.

Deloitte has also expanded its outreach by targeting a broader range of universities, moving away from the traditional practice of focusing primarily on a select few. This shift signifies a commitment to inclusivity and supporting alternative paths into the professional services industry.

KPMG UK also embraces a diverse talent pool while seeking to create an inclusive environment within its firm. Its approach aligns with removing barriers that might impede individuals from realising their potential.

KPMG’s emphasis on encouraging applications from all universities across the UK also showcases a commitment to nurturing talent from diverse academic backgrounds. Its outreach efforts, comprising virtual and on-campus events across a wide range of universities, seek to engage a broad spectrum of prospective applicants, aiming to attract and develop top talent irrespective of their educational origins.

Deloitte’s commitment to diverse recruitment practices extends further through initiatives such as its BrightStart Apprenticeship programme.

BrightStart provides an alternative route into the professional services sector, enabling individuals to work towards professional qualifications while gaining hands-on experience in the workplace. Active participation in programmes such as Young Black Professionals and Women in Technology also reflects a conscious effort to address diversity gaps and foster inclusion.

KPMG’s approach to apprenticeships also involves a commitment to supporting various entry points into the accounting profession. Engagement in initiatives such as the Access Accountancy programme, which aims to improve access for young people from less-advantaged backgrounds, underlines a dedication to levelling the playing field and creating equal opportunities within the sector.

Deloitte’s BrightStart Apprenticeship programme welcomes around 300 apprentices a year, and emphasises the importance of gaining practical experience alongside professional qualifications, offering a credible alternative to traditional university education.

The differing approaches of Deloitte and KPMG in recruitment strategies highlight the industry’s diversity in embracing talent, showcasing varied pathways individuals can pursue within the accounting profession.

Deloitte’s proactive measures in inclusive recruitment and support for alternative routes stand in contrast to KPMG’s emphasis on fostering an inclusive environment while supporting multiple pathways into the profession. These diverse approaches underline the industry’s evolving landscape, offering aspiring professionals an array of opportunities to kickstart their careers.

Evaluating evolving pathways

The landscape of accounting careers is undergoing a transformative shift, propelled by a diverse array of pathways and recruitment strategies embraced by industry leaders.

UCAS’s pioneering apprenticeship framework has emerged as a robust platform, offering a blended approach of theoretical learning and practical application for aspiring professionals in accounting and finance.

Insights gleaned from Manchester Metropolitan University shed light on the efficacy of vocational routes and apprenticeship-based learning, emphasising their role in preparing individuals for higher education studies and subsequent success in the professional realm.

Together, these perspectives paint a dynamic picture of an industry open to diverse educational backgrounds and career trajectories. This evolving landscape signifies an era of inclusivity and multiple pathways, empowering individuals to carve unique journeys in the vibrant world of accounting and finance.