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Welcome Inclusion

Apprentices and graduates: two routes, one common goal

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 05 May 2022

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Fairness is important for those studying successfully for ACA qualifications. Firms employing both apprentices and graduates must understand the concept of equity and apply it carefully to ensure everyone has the best chance to succeed.

The importance of fairness at work can seem so obvious as to require no discussion, but for those who enter the profession via different routes, being treated equitably is vital. Supportive employers recognise the difference between equality – where the aim is to treat everyone the same, regardless of their background – and equity, which takes into consideration individuals’ education and other factors that may influence their progression and performance.

Fairness is “absolutely critical” when it comes to developing graduates and apprentices, according to Stacy Morris, Head of Early Careers Development at KPMG. “It has to be front and centre and it informs absolutely every decision we make, without fail,” she says. “We need to be fair; we need to be consistent and make sure that individuals are treated as individuals, but absolutely the same in relation to how we're applying policies and what we're doing in relation to governance and how we're giving opportunities, and that is absolutely critical.”

Understanding different experiences and skill levels

Morris says her team recognises the difference in academic background between the school leaver and graduate cohorts, and so they take steps to ensure that any potential skills gaps are addressed by the firm and ACA. “It's not that they get taught different things – it’s how they're taught, when they're taught, how regularly they're taught it, how it's delivered, what the environment is like. That's where you have to be mindful to make sure that individuals are getting the best out of their curriculum so they can be successful in the environment we’ve got them in.”

Emma Noble, Senior Manager of KPMG’s new apprenticeship programme, echoes this. She says graduates and apprentices are mixed when they are at equivalent stages on their ACA journey – and that subsequent support is tailored appropriately. KPMG assigns performance managers, performance leaders and ‘buddies’ to each apprentice. 

Holly Younger, Treasury Accountant at airline easyJet, believes the accounting industry should recognise that those coming into apprenticeships straight from school have not had the same experiences as university graduates. She says that managers can’t assume apprentices don’t need the support or extra help. “When people make assumptions about someone, it is the first step to making someone feel excluded, and that can very frequently just be assuming that they’re competent to do something without any support, or that they have the capacity in their life to take more work on.”

Working in audit during her apprenticeship meant months spent away from home and the office working with client firms, Younger says, adding that this may come more easily to university graduates than apprentices, and firms should offer support to treat everyone with equity. “The impact that has on an 18-year-old is probably different from someone in their mid to late 20s who has been away [from home] a lot already.”

Two routes – apprentices versus graduates

Whether or not someone decides to enter the ACA qualification as an apprentice or a graduate, is generally based on their preference for either on-the-job learning or an academic approach. Some people gravitate towards the graduate pathway, as it can give them a chance to try various settings and branches of chartered accountancy, whereas others may prefer to immerse themselves in the world of work immediately and take an earlier first step to independent earning. Also, university is not always a feasible option, given the cost of a degree and the loss of earnings while you study.

Krita Shah chose the apprenticeship route. She finished her A levels last year and is now an FSO Assurance Associate at EY. “When I was back in sixth form, my school was very much like, ‘Oxbridge and university’ from the get-go,” says Shah. “Everyone was encouraged to apply via UCAS, but what I really wanted was something practical, where I could apply all the theory and everything that I've been studying into the actual [business] rather than just continue with exams and writing essays. 

“I really wanted to enter the working world where I could have this experience, and I couldn't find any university degrees I liked, where I could also get practical experience that fitted all my needs. I know loads of graduates who are very happy that they went to university because they wanted that [educational] experience or they got to do another subject before they came into the chartered accounting world. I just preferred entering the world of work straight away. It was very difficult at the start – I was new, there were exams, new people, I moved out from home. But now I have acclimatised, I have no regrets about choosing the apprenticeship.”

Shah says apprentices and graduates – who are treated similarly – learn from one another despite their different routes into the profession. Apprentices, she adds, benefit from their graduate colleagues, who have plenty of exam experience, while Shah can support graduates who lack some of the more practical work skills.

Undoubtedly, the support that Shah and her apprentice colleagues receive is key. She says EY offers help “even before I need to ask for it” and that her superiors recognise the fact that apprentices are new to the world of work, having just left school. Each person is assigned a counsellor who is the first point of contact for general issues, including exam or college difficulties. And they also have an apprenticeship coach who can assist with any apprenticeship-related questions or problems. This equitable support offered to apprentices acknowledges that their background may be different to that of graduates.

Entering the profession as a graduate

For Christopher Sutcliffe, Homes Tax Manager at Legal & General, who took the university route to the ACA, support has also been a huge factor in making his experience a positive one. He was in his second year at university when he switched from a sports degree to a Master’s in finance. In September 2017, he joined Legal & General’s finance graduate scheme because the firm’s ethos appealed, and he preferred the more intimate environment that a small intake – six graduates – offered.

“If you'd have asked me at university whether I’d be a tax manager in five years’ time, the answer would be: absolutely not.” During his Master’s, he says, “I think getting exposure to tax made me realise I enjoyed the tax role in the real world. That was part of the reason why I wanted to go down the graduate route – to explore my options.”

Sutcliffe values the firm’s focus on progression and development and says that graduates – regardless of their different backgrounds – are treated equally. They are each assigned a buddy who has been on the graduate scheme during the past 12 months, so they can relate to what the younger team members are going through. Even the graduate managers are former trainees, which Sutcliffe says, “keeps the circle of support going”. They are able to attend regular training sessions and, now that COVID-19 restrictions are gone, social events have been added to the calendar. Sutcliffe says the team will be welcoming apprentices this year and that they will be treated as part of the cohort and fully supported.

Whatever their background and experience, apprentices and graduates make the decision to take a particular route into chartered accountancy based on multiple factors including finances, social and educational background, and even their stage of life, as not all graduates and apprentices are young. So, it’s crucial to not make assumptions about someone’s skills and experience depending on how they have gained ACA qualifications.

Being fully cognisant of any potential different experiences between apprentices’ and graduates’ experiences and backgrounds is a step in the right direction towards fairness. Morris summarises: “For us as a firm, it's absolutely front and centre that fairness has to drive every decision we make and it’s critical to [our graduates and apprentices] choosing us, staying here and being successful here.”