In the first of what we hope to be many interviews with school leaver trainees, we will look at the practicalities of taking a decision at year 13 that still goes against the tide for many.
I met up with Zoë, now an audit manager at a big 4 professional firm, to ask her how she feels now, eight years after starting her school leaver programme.
Can you give me a bit of background about yourself? Have you always been interested in accounting?
No! I always had an interest in numbers, and did A levels in maths, further maths, physics and art but had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school. My school pretty much just focused on going to university and so I didn’t initially even think about alternatives.
So you were planning to go to university? What changed?
I went to a range of uni open days, Durham, UCL, Southampton, Bath and Nottingham looking at maths, physics, engineering and architecture degrees, but nothing really jumped out at me to say “yes Zoë you really need to be here for three years!” Consequently, I started looking for other options.
My school and friends weren’t massively supportive so this was a bit of a lonely piece of research. Their attitude, was that you need to go to university to get a good job: My school actually said ‘ A clever girl like you Zoë, should be going to university’. My Dad too was concerned. This was over eight years ago now and, at the time, people really lacked the knowledge and understanding that, in accounting, the school leaver schemes and graduate schemes are just different routes to the same place – just one or two years apart.
I applied to a number of the larger professional firms and was successful with the one I am still at now, working in their Reading office. Reading made sense to me as it was near to my family home and I was able to live at home throughout my training.
Was there a master plan then?
There wasn’t a master plan as such! In fact, even when I started with my firm I wasn’t sure what the ACA was (the qualification you receive when completing the ICAEW). What I did know was that if I hated the role then university would always be there. I had received excellent A level grades and I knew I could get into a course the following year, or even after that. So my attitude was really to give the first year a go and see if I enjoy it.
Which I presume you did as you have been there eight years now?
Yes. Once I got into it, I loved the work, and realised that the university option wasn’t needed at all. I went on the same training courses, took the same exams and did the same work as the graduates I had joined with (and I didn’t have any student debt!). I did go and visit friends at university but the experience there never really did it for me.
I know that with most university courses you have about 20 weeks off a year but most of my uni friends were working in supermarkets and restaurants to earn money during that time, which seemed pretty boring compared to what I was doing. They weren’t off travelling around the world, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out.
I bought myself a flat in Reading when I was 23 and haven’t really looked back at all.
The experiences I have had as well match up to anything I would have had at university. A nine week placement in Colorado USA in my third year was a highlight. I regretted not taking up an opportunity to go to Australia on secondment a few years back, but I am making up for that now, by moving to Toronto, Canada in January 22 for an 18 month secondment with my firm. I am so excited!
How do you feel now, when you look back on the last eight years?
Chuffed and proud. I made the right decision for me and it has worked out fantastically well.
What would you say to someone who was in year 11, 12 or 13 right now?
For me, unless you know absolutely what career you want to do and that you need a degree to do it, you should seriously look at school leaver apprenticeship programmes, not necessarily in accounting, they exist in loads of different disciplines.
So many people waste their three years doing a degree that they don’t enjoy or will never use. My view was if I am going to test the water, I would prefer to be paid for it and not build up graduate debt!
I would really encourage everyone to go to careers days and do the research., Don’t rely on schools to do this as they are still in the “go to uni world” (I know as my brother is currently in 6th form and apprenticeships are still not given much attention!)
There is much more information out there now than there ever was when I was doing this back in 2013, so take the time to do the research and find what works for you!
Finally, what three words describe your journey to where you are now?
Exciting, opportunities, well-rewarded.
A fantastic and honest reflection from Zoë, much appreciated from everyone at FI. We hope this resonates with some teenagers, parents, teachers and careers offices.