Steven Thomas embarked on a career change in his 30s, swapping a busy role running a large supermarket for the Civil Service Fast Stream and the ACA qualification – a move that took him to the heart of government.
Steven, from Pontypridd in South Wales, says: “I had a long career with Tesco, working in various stores across South Wales and the South of England. My last role was deputy store manager of an Extra store, with 260 reports. But I needed a change.”
Looking for inspiration, he typed his skills and experience into a search engine. The top result was the HM Government Civil Service Fast Stream, a four year graduate programme to develop future leaders in all areas of the Civil Service.
The programme allows candidates to specialise in different fields, from diplomacy to HR. “I knew I wanted to choose the Finance Fast Stream route because it offered the option to study for the ACA accountancy qualification.”
Steven applied without doing any research into how competitive the programme was. “It was only as I got through the first few stages of the application process that I realised how fortunate I was to be there. There were various numerical and verbal reasoning tasks, situational judgment tests and an eight-hour assessment centre.”
After being accepted onto the programme, his first year-long placement was for the government’s internal audit agency in London, which took him into 10 Downing Street. “One of my first projects involved interviewing various government officials at Number 10 to understand different processes and test controls. It was very surreal to find myself working there within a couple of months of arriving.”
“For students training within an accountancy firm, there can be a set structure and order of exams you need to complete. I had the freedom to do the 15 exams whenever I wanted over the three years I was studying.
“I chose to do Accounting as my first exam, and then spoke to training colleges and found out the recommended order. After a while I made friends with other people from the Fast Stream and we planned and booked our exams together. Having the support of friends really helps when you’re studying.”
Even so, Steven found the qualification challenging. “I hadn’t been to a lecture for 12 years, and I was surrounded by people who had come straight out of university.
“I had to work a lot harder than I ever worked before. People say learning accountancy and skills such as double-entry bookkeeping is like learning a new language, but it’s important to stick with it. As soon as you get it and it clicks, it all becomes very rewarding.”
His experience working at Tesco also proved invaluable. “The technical side of the qualification was extremely challenging, but the business and strategic sides of it were easier because I’d worked in roles that involved internal audits and strategic planning. That certainly helped with my studies.”
His last placement before completing the Fast Stream programme was in the Welsh government, working on its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the beginning of June he started a new role as head of contract reform finance for primary care services in Wales.
Now 38, Steven reflects on the commitment it takes to qualify for the ACA. “It is very rewarding, but what I would suggest to people is that they research it beforehand and realise that it takes a lot of time and effort, and support from the people around you.”
He has found that the ACA becomes more relevant as you become more experienced. “You don't always realise how relevant it is because the learning aspect of it can be abstract, but it really gives you the tools you need to successfully do your job in the future.”