We spoke to Kathryn Long, Commercial Finance Business Partner at Essex County Council about the benefits of employing apprentices. Kathryn oversees the professional study scheme and Graduate Finance Trainee Programme. She is also the CIPFA training manager and the finance lead for graduate recruitment, and is the CIPFA South East regional president.
Could you tell us a little about your job role, the apprenticeship programmes your organisation supports and how many apprentices you typically recruit/manage in a year?
I am a Commercial Finance Business Partner within the finance team at Essex County Council (ECC). ECC offers numerous apprenticeship programmes across the organisation, from Level 3 up to Level 7, covering a multitude of different standards from customer service to social care and IT. Last year, we welcomed nearly 50 new apprentices (all started virtually) and offered over 40 current staff apprenticeship development opportunities. Within finance, we support CIPFA and AAT apprenticeships, with 12 CIPFA and eight AAT apprentices currently. We have a couple of learners who aren't on the apprenticeship scheme, but this is on an exception basis. Our default approach is that when someone starts a new qualification, they join via the apprenticeship route.
What would you say are the benefits of participating in an apprenticeship programme and employing apprentices?
At Essex, we have always prioritised professional development and technical training to ensure we have a high-performing finance team. We were committed to supporting professional qualifications before the apprenticeship levy was introduced. The apprenticeship programme now allows us to claim training costs from the levy, meaning we can support more members of the team to study. Supporting a greater number of ECC learners in achieving a qualification really helps us to strengthen our resilience and grow future public finance leaders.
Another benefit of the apprenticeship is the structure it provides. It really makes everyone focus on completing their work experience and off-the-job training throughout their studies. That way, you finish, then you do your end-point assessment, and then you are qualified straightaway. It's good to have that support.
How did you decide what level of apprenticeship you wanted your employees to take?
For our finance team, it's AAT and CIPFA. Anyone joining on the graduate scheme would go straight into the CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship. For anyone who is already working within the finance team, if they're AAT qualified, we offer CIPFA as part of our professional study scheme and let people apply for funding and day release that way. They would go straight to Level 7. For anyone joining at an accounting officer entry level position, we strongly encourage AAT and also support our existing accounting technicians to become fully AAT qualified as well. So, there isn't really much of a decision in terms of the level of apprenticeship, as we support specific qualifications. Whether AAT or CIPFA, we assess each person based on where they are and the appropriate level for them to start at
Are there any ways you've had to adapt in response to the pandemic?
Obviously, we all started working from home straight away, but a lot of the adaptations were made by the training providers. There was always the option for CIPFA classes to be online anyway, but it just meant that suddenly there wasn't the option of being classroom-based. This wasn't so much of an issue, and half our students were doing online classes anyway. For those who really wanted that face-to-face teaching, it was difficult. We adapted by having more virtual catch-ups and focused on keeping in touch as much as possible. I also set up channels on Microsoft Teams to share information and help students keep in contact. For any new joiners, such as graduate trainees, we made the most of Teams and screen sharing to help with training.
A major thing we had to adapt to, particularly at the start of the pandemic, was graduate recruitment, which all went virtual. Previously, assessment centres and interviews would have taken place our County Hall office. That was quite a big adjustment, having to restructure our whole assessment centre. We're in the middle of our recruitment for this year's cohort now, and we've chosen to keep it virtual, as we've found that candidates come from universities across the UK, and it allows them to attend the assessments without travelling. It also gives us a broader choice of candidates from across the country.
How do you monitor the wellbeing, work and motivation of your apprentices remotely?
Keeping the lines of communication open is key. All apprentices have their own direct line manager and are assigned a mentor, or a 'study buddy', who is doing the same qualification but will be slightly ahead. I keep in touch with everyone regularly and have colleagues who assist me with this. We have an Essex County Council wellbeing strategy as well, so there's a whole network open to them. All new apprentices are also invited to an onboarding event which allows them to meet their peers and start networking, which is vital in a virtual world.
What advice could you give to other employers?
For us, it's about having a high-performing finance function and continuing professional development. Seeing people grow through the scheme has always been important to us. Having that support network in place is vital, as is having those who are enthusiastic about learning and training. Talking to others who have been through the scheme helps, and I am always happy to talk to other employers if they are thinking about setting up a graduate scheme or putting someone through CIPFA. Developing trainees via a Level 7 apprenticeship is a fantastic thing to do. If you are unsure about the process, just talk to CIPFA or employer training managers like myself.
What features of the CIPFA apprenticeship programme set it apart from others?
As a county council, it makes sense for us to support the qualification that is relevant to the public sector. It's not just about the exams and the results — it's about the networking and volunteering opportunities, plus all the resources CIPFA provides that are relevant to our sector.
Can you tell us about your experience working with CIPFA?
I've had a very positive experience working with CIPFA. I find the employer forums informative, and they keep us up to date on things like syllabus changes. Everyone is very approachable, there is always support for students, and CIPFA really adapted to the pandemic. I've been involved with CIPFA for many years in my current role and previous roles, and I've always had really good relationships with all the different people I have met in that time.
Our next CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship programme will begin in autumn 2022. Enrolments will close on 31 July 2022. To start the process or find out more about CIPFA apprenticeships, get in touch with our apprenticeships team today: firstname.lastname@example.org