How vocational education helped kick-start my career

| August 13, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Helen Wright, Audit Supervisor, Baker Tilly Chartered Accountants

Studying through an apprenticeship isn’t for everyone. You’re thrown in the deep end, into the working world, and you either sink or swim. You go from a having a daily routine attending school from 9-3pm each day and step into a world of responsibility, long working hours and weekend study. At times, you might question if it’s worth it, especially when you see your friends attending university parties and ‘living it up’ on campus. It certainly takes a bit of time to settle into the working world.

I studied at Halesowen College in Birmingham and accountancy was one of my A-level subjects. I knew it was something that I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. I loved the practical side of the job and the fact that I would be able to work with a variety of people from different organisations as my responsibilities grew. I felt there were a lot of options for me within this sector of business as well as the opportunity to work abroad.

Naturally, I started researching the types of jobs I could expect to get in accountancy firms and to my surprise, realised that a university degree wasn’t essential. My accountancy tutor at college gave me some strong career advice and recommended I opt for a vocational route in which I’d work and train at the same time.

I kept my options open and applied for an accountancy degree at several universities but I also applied for a full time job at the Birmingham city office of the national firm of chartered accountants, Baker Tilly. The latter was the ideal way to obtain a well sought after accountancy qualification, bypass university and the associated student debt and gain relevant and valuable experience.

To my surprise, Baker Tilly granted me a job as an audit assistant before I had finished studying. In three months, I went from attending college (July 2009), to starting full time employment (August 2009) and my studies began with the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) (September 2009).

As for my university applications, I was accepted and offered four degree courses – each with an accountancy focus – so I wasn’t short of options. But my decision was made easier once the opportunity with Baker Tilly came up. In my eyes, the vocational route meant I could avoid a hefty student debt (£27,000 pounds for a three year degree) and gain practical experience. If I had attended university I would still be there now but instead, I have gained three years of enjoyable and rewarding work experience, am on my way to becoming a chartered accountant and will be qualified sooner than if I had gone to university. For these reasons, I decided the vocational route was the best fit for me and just like that, I accepted the role and was in the real world.

When I told my friends and family that I would be doing an apprenticeship, I was comforted to see their reactions were positive.

Unfortunately there is a stigma attached to apprenticeships and vocational qualifications in general that that they are designed for those who are ‘less academic’. I assume this is because apprenticeships are commonly associated with careers such as carpentry and hospitality, where on the job training is commonplace.

I am also a firm believer that we are skeptical about apprenticeships and vocational qualifications because we have relied so heavily on a university system, believing it is a passport to a career. We now know this isn’t the case as university education has been led by demand from students rather than employers, and as a result we have mass graduate unemployment.

There just isn’t enough independent career advice out there so that young people are aware of other routes into the professions. As a result, one can understand why people perceive apprenticeships to be second class.

My apprenticeship involved hard work, dedication and a commitment to balance full time work (30 hours a week) with part time study (7 hours a week). When my university peers were studying theory, so was I, but I was then expected to put it into practice as my colleagues and our customers were relying on me to do so.

My decision not to go to university and undergo an apprenticeship was the best decision I’ve made.

I am now an audit supervisor after receiving a promotion last year following completion of my AAT qualification. My job involves meeting clients on a regular basis and reviewing their financial statements. I am also responsible for the other members of staff in my team and supervise and review their work.

At 21 years old, I feel extremely lucky to be in this position. Many people my age are either just finishing university or still studying but it’s been three years since I’ve been in a class room full time.

The vocational route has been my step ladder towards gaining a chartered accountancy qualification and consequently, I am in a better place professionally and financially than if I had done it any other way.

Helen Wright is a 21 year old Audit Supervisor at Baker Tilly Chartered Accountants in Birmingham. She became a fully qualified accounting technician with the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) in September 2011 and has since moved on to study with the Institute of Chartered Accountants for England and Wales.

The AAT is the UK’s professional body for accounting and finance staff and offers an alternative route to an accountancy qualification to university. To find out more, visit


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