As demonstrated by the appointment of Natalie Binstead - an accountant I have worked with since the start of her career in 2013 - to the position of vice president of the ICAEW South West of England, apprenticeships are starting to have an impact on diversity.
In 2013, I met with Natalie. She had excellent analytical skills, financial acumen, good organisational skills and a natural flair for problem-solving – all in all the potential to be an excellent accountant.
Fast forward six years, Natalie is now manager at Saffery Champness, co-founder of WECAN, and vice president of ICAEW South West of England. Her qualifications and her positions in leadership of various accounting organisations speak for themselves, but the decision at the start of her career to take an apprenticeship has informed it all.
The apprenticeship route
For many years there appeared to be a belief that the best route into accountancy was through university. Despite a push towards apprenticeships there still seemed to be a stigma that surrounded them. However, that is now changing.
If a school leaver is certain that this is the career for them, then the programmes can be intense, but as Natalie found they will often mean progress is faster than those on a graduate scheme due to much more time spent with senior members of the accountancy profession. Natalie said, "Being exposed to senior members of the accountancy profession at a young age can really help you to learn a lot in a short space of time and the schemes are very supportive with your studies both financially and in relation to study leave."
Couple this with the intensive, focussed nature of the studies that are complemented rather than clashed with placements and the likelihood of creating a work-ready recruit at the time of graduation is much higher. It is this work-ready recruit that we are constantly being asked for by firms when they start searching for new talent to mould.
The case for moving towards better parity between genders, ethnicity and backgrounds is not just one of rights. There are increasing numbers of financial cases being made.
Reports like one from The Peterson Institute for International Economic – which found that organisations with 30% female leaders could increase net margin by up to 6% – undoubtedly help give greater incentive for speeding up the process.
However, research from Accountancy Age showing that only one accountancy firm had fewer than 60% men on its board, demonstrated just how far away we are from this point. But we are getting there and courses such as the ASA are helping.
In recent years the intake of new ACA students has been relatively gender-balanced. A higher intake of women can only mean greater chances that gender balance will also start to spread upwards and into the boardroom – an outcome that women like Natalie are driving towards.
Unfortunately, there is still much more to be done with respect to the industry's ethnic diversity, and this is something that various initiatives from ICAEW are focussed on achieving. But apprenticeships, which offer a more affordable route into a profession, could help here too if properly promoted.
By simple virtue of outreach into communities and presenting accountancy courses as affordable options, we can increase the diversity and the richness of accountancy talent. If we can increase entrant diversity, it follows that by improving mentoring and clearing paths to progression we can improve diversity at the top.
Apprenticeship one part of the answer
University isn't for everyone, and the changing nature of work means there are more ways than ever to have a fulfilling career. Apprenticeships are one of several ways to kick-start a career in accountancy. There will always be other, well-trodden paths, and we need those as well to continue to have a healthy mix of cultures and backgrounds. If Natalie's success is an example and an inspiration to take an apprenticeship course, and bring about people from a greater range of backgrounds, then we are one more step closer to bringing about better diversity in this profession.
Daniel Paul is a business manager at Reed Bristol