Following the UK’s National Apprenticeship Week during 8-14 February, Joe Pickard speaks to David Whitson-Black, group head of talent development at accountancy firm Azets, about the impact the pandemic has had on onboarding apprentices


National Apprenticeship Week is an initiative that aims to highlight the success stories of apprentices and their employers.

Over the past year, many businesses have had to close their doors and furlough staff, while centres of education have had to find new ways to teach their students.

However, it has been important to keep open the pipeline of talent entering industry. And apprentices joining businesses will have to adapt to new working conditions and integrate with their colleagues remotely.

The idea of looking for or starting a new job – let alone a first job – can be daunting at the best of times. With much-heightened competition in the employment market due to the pandemic, that becomes even more challenging. An apprenticeship can be a good way to learn on the job while being supported and trained by a company that is prepared to help you through the learning curves.

Speaking ahead of National Apprenticeship week, UK apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan said: “It has been fantastic to see how employers of all sizes have gone above and beyond to ensure apprentices can continue their studies during this unprecedented time. The week is also an opportunity to shine a light on how apprentices of all ages and backgrounds are helping to transform businesses across the country.

“As a former apprentice I know what a life-changing experience it can be, and I’m looking forward to being part of National Apprenticeship Week 2021 and seeing first hand the inspiring ways apprentices and their employers continue to deliver.”

Azets provides a range of apprenticeship offerings, but there are broadly two options: the school-leaver or graduate programmes:

The school-leaver route is a six-year programme that includes two apprenticeship programmes, leading to the student becoming qualified in their AAT and then moving onto their chartered accountancy qualification (ACA, ACCA, CTA or ICAS);

The graduate route is a three- or four-year programme where students study toward their chartered accountancy qualification (ACA, ACCA, CTA or ICAS).


TA: How hard has it been to onboard apprentices during a global pandemic? How has it differed from the process pre-pandemic?

David Whitson-Black: The overriding focus was to ensure that everyone got the best possible experience, and having had a few months of remote working, we had set ourselves up for success.

The pre-boarding experience was made easier by having our recruitment team be in constant contact with our new colleagues and ensuring equipment had been ordered and coordinated and that they all had their details to get set up before day one. Being online made it easier to have a consistent induction programme that lasted a number of weeks and everyone had the same experience.

The difference was in the lack of face-to-face contact – coming into the office to meet managers and teams was not possible in all cases, and we had to adapt. We did, however, create an environment as close to this as possible remotely. We allocated buddies and provided a number of training and support sessions.


TA: What is the benefit for organisations in taking on apprentices in the current climate? Has there been increased demand for apprentices?

DWB: You need to look at what you need for future success. Fresh talent is a must in our industry and it’s important to our growth. Our apprentices are a big part of our future. By not providing the opportunities, you are blocking your talent pipeline for the future and that is never good for long-term sustainability. We have increased our school leaver and graduate numbers for 2021, which is something we are very excited about and proud of.


TA: How do you provide practical support to your apprentices in regards to their well-being and mental health?

DWB: We ensured everyone had a buddy, that they were in constant contact with their teams and that support was on offer whenever and however they needed it.

We have a well-being programme of activities, groups and a range of support available to people such as mental health first aiders. We also use our intranet which has a wealth of content and we offer external support through our Employee Assistance Programme. This week (8-12 February) we even have yoga and exercise classes online. I also have to mention that we even have a programme for the kids of our employees – who doesn’t love a bit of magic?


TA: Has your training of apprentices differed since the pandemic hit? Has there been a focus on different skills?

DWB: I have to say I am pleasantly surprised with how well all of our students have adapted to remote working.

We are in a digital world and being able to adapt in such a way has been important and I think they have found it relatively easy. We already had a mix of online and classroom for study, so for many, things didn’t change. There are others who had to transition study to online and have adapted well, and the training providers have been excellent in their support.

We have increased the training available to people, and supported the transition to remote working for all of our colleagues. It’s not without its challenges, but we are doing everything we can to keep our training on track.


TA: What do you look for in potential apprentices?

DWB: We take pride in living our values and we want anyone who joins us to feel they can be part of it and drive our values into everything we do. We want our colleagues to be able to bring with them a can-do attitude, their own voice and a dynamic approach to everything they do. We are all about people, and people working together and seeing themselves as part of our family is vital.


TA: What advice would you give to other organisations looking to increase their apprentice intake?

DWB: Give it a chance, you will be surprised by the amazing talent you can attract and how they will support your future growth!


The apprentice’s viewpoint

Commenting on her experience as an Azets apprentice, Georgia Hanger says: “As part of the apprenticeship scheme I get continued support and funding towards my learning.

“Azets stood out to me as an employer because they want to help their employees and clients achieve and grow, and there are plenty of opportunities within Azets to achieve this objective.

“I felt very supported joining Azets during a pandemic. As soon as we began to work from home we were provided with a huge range of support, ranging from clear communication on how to get the most out of agile working, to providing us with the correct tools to work from home, such as computers, laptops and even desk chairs. Azets gave us resources to help us be aware of our mental health, manage stress, look after our posture and adjust our home working environment.

“I have had continued support with remote on-the-job learning, and my apprenticeship at Azets has provided me with the perfect balance to complete my studies and work full time.”


Last month, UHY Hacker Young found that the Apprenticeship Levy – A tax introduced to fund new and existing apprenticeships – was the second highest yielding tax introduced over the last decade, generating £9.7bn since it was introduced in 2017