The accountancy apprenticeship programmes offered by Smith & Williamson provide opportunities for aspiring professionals in Birmingham, Bristol, Guildford, London, Salisbury and Southampton, with around 70 school leavers and graduates joining the firm each year.
What was your perception of apprenticeships before you decided to introduce them at Smith & Williamson?
My perception of apprenticeships before developing our programmes was very much the traditional view. Naively, an old-fashioned view of apprenticeships. That apprenticeships are only for those who want to train in a specific trade. Things such as plumbing or to become an electrician. In addition to this, a mutual view across the firm was that apprenticeships are only for school-leavers. This of course is no longer the case. Nowadays anyone can become an apprentice at any stage of their career.
What motivated you to introduce an apprenticeship programme at Smith & Williamson – what were your key drivers for the decision?
There were a number of different drivers for our decision to introduce apprenticeships in the firm. We are a levy payer, so it makes sense for us to seriously look at how we could ensure the we use our levy funds. Although, our motivations were not solely financial reasons. As we researched the benefits of apprenticeships, it became clear that an apprenticeship programme would support our aims as a firm to access the best talent straight from school, university or work. It would also offer opportunities to individuals to study for a fully-funded professional qualification. These may be those who, for whatever reason, may not be able to fund further education themselves.
Another key driver for us was to establish a high-performance culture among apprentices. The focus of the apprenticeship on experience in the workplace allows us to shape the work provided to apprentices to help build their skills, address gaps and improve their contribution to achieving the objectives of the business and their own personal goals.
The apprenticeship standards developed by the employer-led trailblazer group support the development of key professional skills and behaviours in addition to technical knowledge, to create more rounded professional accountants or tax advisers who can provide the best possible service to our clients and support the sustainable growth of our firm. The flexibility in how we could deliver the standards also allowed us to work with First Intuition to co-develop and co-deliver apprentices skills training. This ensured that we are addressing the skills that our industry believes are essential for professional accountants or tax advisers.
What challenges did you face in setting up your apprenticeship programmes, and how did you overcome them?
Our biggest challenge was ensuring that everyone within the firm understood what the programmes involve. Not just the trainees and appraisers, but also colleagues from around the business.
Communications were really important – particularly around busting some of the myths on apprenticeships, the requirements and who they benefit. We managed this by running multiple ‘town hall’ events at all of our offices. We also chose to invite all staff who were involved in developing and mentoring trainees. This included trainees who joined in earlier intakes. As a consequence, we could ensure that they also understood what the newer intakes would be doing differently and why.
Our training provider, First Intuition, joined us in delivering these sessions and answering questions from the business. Taking an honest, and transparent approach to communicating our reasons for moving to apprenticeships, what was involved and how the programmes would be supported really helped to get engagement from stakeholders around the business and made the overall transition smoother.
How has COVID impacted on your programmes?
Fortunately, our programme already had blended elements of virtual delivery within the training and support. Therefore most our trainees had experience of virtual courses and meetings with their skills coach. We made some very early decisions with First Intuition to move all of the formal training delivery online. We communicated these decisions, along with decisions on adapted study pathways to manage exam sitting cancellations, to the business very quickly.
These early decisions and communications meant that we limited the disruption to our programmes and the progression and learning of our trainees has continued successfully. The way in which First Intuition and professional bodies such as ICAEW and CIOT have worked so flexibly to ensure training could be delivered virtually and exam sittings could be quickly resumed via a mix of remote invigilation and test centre options has ensured minimal disruption for Smith & Williamson trainees and the business, allowing us to continue to serve our clients throughout the pandemic.
What can the government do to encourage more employers to hire apprentices?
Seek out more examples of employers who are willing to share their positive experiences and make these more publicly available. Particularly, small employers who might otherwise be unnerved by all of the in-depth rules and guidance on apprenticeships.
The process could also be de-mystified – how can the process of hiring an apprentice be simplified without compromising on quality and support? Quality assuring providers is also key. The current We could expand Ofsted monitoring to include ratings for providers on how closely they work with and support employers of apprentices.
What advice would you give to employers considering taking on an apprentice for the first time?
Go for it! Don’t let the paperwork put you off. You will get access to a greater pool of talent – individuals you may never have recruited onto traditional programmes may turn out to be some of your best recruits. They are also a fantastic way to upskill people already working with you.
Approach the development of your programme by first considering:
- What skills do we need from our people now and in the future?
- Can we develop these skills within an apprenticeship?
- What apprenticeships are available to support me to do that?
Thank you very much to Claire for these fantastic insights into the process behind starting an apprenticeship programme.
Find out more about the benefits of hiring an apprentice.
For more information on apprenticeship programmes at First Intuition, please visit our apprenticeship page.