We spoke to CIPFA apprentice Charlie Lowe (left) from Sefton Council about his CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Qualification journey. He and his line manager, Andrew Bridson (right) explain the benefits of the CIPFA apprenticeship.
Charlie Lowe, CIPFA Trainee at Sefton Council, and Andrew Bridson, Strategic Finance Manager and lead on Sefton’s CIPFA graduate trainee programme, explain why the CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship offers more than just a qualification.
Charlie Lowe is a CIPFA Trainee Accountant at Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council in Merseyside. He joined the local authority’s CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship programme in September 2021 after graduating from Edge Hill University with a first-class degree in business and management.
“The trainee role is a three-year rotational programme, with placements around the different finance teams within the Council, which is designed to ensure that I gain the depth and breadth of skills and experience required to develop a successful career as a finance professional,” Charlie explains. “My day-to-day duties include supporting managers in making affordability decisions, carrying out monthly budget monitoring, analysing and explaining financial data and administering the collection of income.”
While at university, Charlie enjoyed work experience within another local authority, so already had a flavour of the public sector environment before successfully applying to Sefton Council’s graduate trainee scheme. “What attracted me to working in the public sector was the opportunity to build a career for myself in an area that has the primary aim of providing services to local people,” he says. “I also found it inspiring that the public sector – and specifically local government – can provide you with the opportunity to make a positive difference to local communities, which is something I knew that I'd find really rewarding.”
Andrew Bridson is a Strategic Finance Manager at Sefton Council, and part of his role is to lead on the authority’s CIPFA graduate trainee programme. This includes mapping out the different placements for trainees to ensure they complement coursework, as well as overseeing other areas such as making sure that the trainees have somebody as a mentor, and providing a point of contact for the apprentices outside of their teams.
He explains that one of the key drivers in the decision to recruit accountancy apprentices was succession planning within the service. While it was able to recruit for some posts, there were challenges in getting the right candidates – which the CIPFA Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship helped address. “The CIPFA apprenticeship route essentially gave the Council an opportunity to draw down funding from the apprenticeship levy, which was also helpful in addressing some of the budgetary constraints we were facing,” Andrew says. “We decided, with the support of our in-house apprenticeship team, to bring in these Level 7 apprenticeship students to help develop new and existing talent while also supporting the Council from a capacity perspective – ensuring that we have the right people with the right skills we need for the service moving forwards.”
Sefton Council began recruiting CIPFA accountancy apprentices in 2019, with an initial four taken on for the programme. Two were graduate trainees, but they also looked to recruit experienced internal candidates too. Andrew explains: “We offered the opportunity to people who’d been at the Council for a number of years – one recruit had been here for 24 years, another around five years. It was an opportunity to develop in-house talent as well as bringing in fresh talent from outside. After that first cohort – two of whom have now qualified – we brought in five more apprenticeship trainees in 2021, including Charlie, so we currently have seven on our apprenticeship programme.”
In terms of development, Charlie says that he finds the apprenticeship programme both challenging and rewarding. “Balancing the study modules alongside the administration of the off the job log and writing my work experience logs is particularly challenging, but when you find that you've passed an exam or you receive positive feedback from your coach, it's really rewarding,” he says.
Charlie believes the structure of the apprenticeship is particularly useful for his career development. “It's been hugely beneficial in setting me up for my future career because the skills and behaviours matrix, in particular, has provided me with a framework to work with so that I can ensure that I gain the right experience and develop the right skills and standards of behaviours to work at the level of a chartered public finance accountant.”
Charlie says he has developed a range of other soft skills that complement his technical accountancy education. “The ones that I've noticed the most are time management, prioritisation and communication. Time management and prioritisation have been vital for me in ensuring I allow enough time to study for the exams, complete my log of work experience and off the job hours. And to do this alongside my day-to-day workload as well, on a regular basis, has really improved these skills.”
He says that the experience of presenting and explaining financial information to others on a regular basis as part of his placements has also improved his communications abilities: “Being able to do this effectively is a vital skill for any finance professional.”
The benefits of the CIPFA apprenticeship are certainly not just one-way, Andrew explains, with the recruits bringing enthusiasm and fresh ideas to their teams: “Charlie and the other apprentices are all very positive and proactive in their approach to work,” he says. “It’s fantastic to get this fresh talent from outside to come in and benefit our finance service.”
He continues: “Each placement gives them the opportunity to see things from a different perspective for a time-limited period during their apprenticeship. They can really complement their CIPFA studies in placements where they're honing their technical skills, knowledge and behaviours as part of the programme and then applying that within the workplace setting. That's probably the key positive and the key benefit that we have found from bringing in apprenticeships within our graduate trainee apprenticeship programme.”
As he’s worked through the programme, Charlie has found the CIPFA study modules are the most enjoyable parts of the programme. “Each one of these has challenged me in a different way, and has either expanded on previous knowledge or taught me something completely new,” he explains. “The combination of the more theoretical modules and the more numerical modules is a highlight for me because I think they provide you with both the technical and the more strategic knowledge that you will need for a successful career in public sector finance.”
Andrew says that the feedback from his placements indicates that Charlie is progressing well within the programme, applying the knowledge and skills that he has so far learned, and gaining that depth and breadth of experience that the CIPFA apprenticeship promises – as well as developing more autonomy in his role. “The aim for us is that all our apprentices will reach that position where they can go on to become a fully-fledged finance professional, and that they'll be able to step up into an appropriate role within the service at that point in time,” he says.
Charlie is scheduled to complete his apprenticeship around June 2024, after which he aims to fulfil his ambition of a career in public sector finance. “My initial goal is to qualify as a chartered public finance accountant, and then progress hopefully to a more senior position within Sefton Council,” he says. “In the long term, my aspiration would be to occupy a senior management position within a local authority finance department.”
Charlie says he would definitely recommend the CIPFA apprenticeship to anyone who is passionate about finance and public service. He concludes: “The apprenticeship itself is challenging and it does require a great degree of commitment, but is also extremely rewarding; it gives you the opportunity to develop yourself and your skillset and I believe it will improve my chances of having a successful career in public finance.”
CIPFA has two Level 7 Accountancy Professional Apprenticeship intakes a year, one starting in the spring and one in the autumn. If you have any queries, including how to go about recruiting an apprentice, contact the apprenticeship team: firstname.lastname@example.org