With a glowing academic transcript and aspirations to become an accountant, Rhian Old expected to go through university to obtain her finance qualifications.

At 17, she was unhappy with the prospect of spending 4+ years and thousands of pounds at university. Eager to start her career, she began looking at other options to get her qualification and stumbled upon AAT.

Reflecting on your apprenticeship, what were the key skills and knowledge you gained that set the foundation for your career progression?

I did my apprenticeship in finance, which is not the field in which I now work. And this is a key understanding for me, an apprenticeship is no different than any other qualification in terms of a benchmark. The skills I learned throughout my apprenticeship are absolutely transferable and remained relevant throughout my career to date. I think there is a misconception that an apprenticeship is a qualification in specific areas that doesn’t translate, but that simply isn’t the case.

How did your apprenticeship experience contribute to your passion for the apprenticeship sector?

My answer to this is both positive and negative. Starting my apprenticeship felt like exactly the right decision and I was so pleased to be starting my career, knowing I was gaining qualifications. But the journey to get there was lonely and I felt I was pushing against the tide – my school continued to try to convince me to stay, the information available to me was limited. I really had to dig to find the relevant information (thank goodness for the internet!) and no one around me had done an apprenticeship to help guide me. I look back now and marvel at the utter determination of my 17-year-old self, and how sure I was that this was the right thing for me. In terms of my passion for the sector, it’s twofold. I want to shout from the rooftops about the benefits of an apprenticeship, but I also want to make sure no one feels alone or unsupported in their choice.

Leadership is built on experience and real-world understanding of business, which is exactly what they are accessing during their apprenticeship.

What challenges did you face during your apprenticeship, and how did overcoming them influence your resilience and determination in your career?

I think entering the workplace at 17 was a big eye-opener, especially as I went into a male-dominated accountancy practice. Not only was I totally unaware of the ‘norms’ of working, but I was very much used as the office junior and wasn’t initially exposed to the areas of my role that I needed to be to support my learning. It was a steep learning curve, one that I think we should help young apprentices with more, but it did set me up for building the confidence to address things in the right way. Over time I learnt that challenging and highlighting areas of concern is absolutely the right thing to do – you can disagree without being disagreeable!

Were there mentors or role models during your apprenticeship who played a significant role in your development? How did they inspire or guide you?

I didn’t have this, but I think it is absolutely vital. I did my apprenticeship in a time when it was still felt apprenticeships were for people with no other choice, so I had no one in my world to learn from. I was initially in small accountancy firms with no other apprentices, so I didn’t have that support in work either. I do think having role models and mentors would have had a significant positive impact for me, so this is an area that we should really invest in.

What advice would you give to current apprentices who aspire to reach leadership positions within the apprenticeship sector?

I would tell them they’re already on the right path! Leadership is built on experience and real-world understanding of business, which is exactly what they are accessing during their apprenticeship. There is still a stigma of not having a university degree on your CV (believe me, I’ve been in that place in interviews more times than I would like to acknowledge!) but never feel like your real-world understanding combined with learning is somehow less than a university degree.

How can the apprenticeship sector continue to evolve and improve to better support individuals on their career paths?

For me this is all about knowledge and information, making sure every potential apprentice fully understands the real-world impact and opportunity that an apprenticeship can bring. I also think it’s vital to make sure an apprenticeship is a credible option for everyone, in the same way uni is an accepted next step to consider. Beyond school leavers though, recognising people already in the work world can take full advantage of an apprenticeship to either progress their career or move careers.

Katy Lennon is our Principal Consultant of Training and Apprenticeship Appointments and a big advocate for apprenticeships across the country.

If you’re looking to recruit leaders into your apprenticeship organisation, get in touch via Linkedin or send her an email.