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I wasn’t expecting that

Beyond work a myriad of opportunities awaits – you may even get to be a star of the West End and tour the UK, courtesy of PwC’s annual charity panto, which sees employees acting, singing, dancing, directing…

Introduction

The key driver from a business perspective is diversity. Bringing in people from different backgrounds – not just graduates with a 2.1 from top universities.

Launched in 2012, the Professional Services Higher Apprenticeship (studied through the PwC school and college leaver programme) aims to recruit and develop the bright and ambitious who are keen to launch their careers early rather than go to university. Successful applicants develop their business skills while completing formal training and studying for qualifications in one of four areas – Assurance, Consulting, Deals and Tax.

The school and college leaver route isn’t easy. As well as great on-the-job performance, professional exams must be passed. This takes hard work and commitment. For those who make the grade, a world of opportunity awaits. There’s plenty of variety and serious responsibility in the mix from the off and the programme offers a real chance to build a dazzling portfolio of achievements.

'Our Higher Apprentices get to meet senior figures and work with clients. Some of the current cohort have met David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. One of them has even taken part in a national TV and media campaign,’ said a manager. ’We’re proud of them and encourage them to share their experiences.'

'My child has matured a lot – having to dress appropriately and going to clients’ offices gives a new perspective. Higher Apprentices have to work with some very senior people and gain so much experience by working with them.’ - Parent of a PwC Higher Apprentice

The role

As well as learning on the job, and developing the specialist skills that PwC’s clients expect and that you will need to do the job, Higher Apprentices simultaneously study for a professional qualification.
Working as part of a team, those joining PwC’s Corporate and Indirect Tax practice work on a range of projects, from preparing annual accounts to restructuring multi-million pound property portfolios, from buying a business to advising celebrities on the tax implications of their worldwide tours. A PwC manager says: ‘If you want to be part of a business that's committed to proactively engaging with the tax policy debate and focused on leading views or working with organisations to help them make the most of their biggest asset – their people – then our Tax practice is the place to be.’ Day-to-day work includes technical research, attending meetings with senior staff, establishing relationships with organisations like the Inland Revenue, drafting client correspondence and general office duties.

‘It’s a big commitment. It’s not just a job – you are building a career. Whichever area you work in, people need to be agile and ready to build strong relationships, networks and leadership skills.’ - PwC manager

Those working in Management Consulting help organisations to grow faster and work smarter. The Management Consulting practice works in areas ranging from helping clients to define their strategy to ensuring their business functions are effective to helping clients improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their workforce. Business consultants deliver practical, insightful advice that gets straight to the heart of the big business issues, to make a real impact on the bottom line (profitability of the business).

‘Whatever issues you tackle you’ll work with inspiring leaders to deliver measurable results and a standard of client service that’s truly second to none.’ - PwC Consulting manager

Assurance is PwC’s department for audit – helping clients to accurately express the financial and non-financial position of their businesses. Higher Apprentices develop the business skills, knowledge and relationships for a career that’s about so much more than numbers. They are part of the team that gets to grips with every aspect of clients’ activities – developing real insights into their client’s markets, technology, people and management as well as their finances.

‘Assurance is critical work that enhances corporate governance (balancing the interests of, for example, shareholders, customers, suppliers). It plays an important role in ensuring the reliability and relevance of business information.’ - PwC Assurance manager

Those working in Deals advise clients throughout the cycle of Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A), from planning beforehand to providing support after the deal has gone through. Teams advise on some of the largest and most complex cross-border deals. Financial due diligence helps buyers understand what will make a transaction successful. This may include thoroughly assessing a target company’s finances, considering the opportunities and risks and identifying potential deal issues. They also work for vendors (those selling a business) by independently assessing that business so potential buyers can make informed decisions. They can help with buying a business, selling all or part of a business, refinancing or listing on stock exchanges through Initial Public Offerings (IPOs).

Training

PwC’s programme has three parts: the day-to-day job, the professional qualification and the on-the-job training. Everyone receives key business skills training, covering things such as understanding finance, communicating in a business environment and using technology effectively. They learn to problem-solve, work effectively in teams and develop their core literacy, numeracy and IT skills. Additionally, all are trained in their specialism – Assurance, Consulting, Deals or Tax.

As well as being coached on the job, Higher Apprentices study at college, do inde-pendent learning (a first year said he did ‘a little bit’ of studying every night to stay on track) and attend internal training events. There is help and support along the way and the company pays for the first attempt at professional qualifications, but not re-sits. Anyone failing a professional exam re-sit may have to leave the programme – individual circumstances are taken into account – and students are encouraged to consider re-applying to PwC upon completion of their qualification independently.

Apprentices start their PwC careers with a two-day residential course covering topics such as IT training, team-building, working in a professional environment, email and office etiquette, first impressions and the importance of their personal brand and being professional. There’s also a workshop to develop business skills. ‘I was using complicated words unnecessarily,’ said one Higher Apprentice. ‘We were taught to keep it simple, straightforward and to the point.’ Wise advice.

This is followed by a more tailored induction at their own offices (locations include Reading, Gatwick, St Albans, Cambridge, Southampton, Uxbridge, Central London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Newcastle and Belfast). Once they start work the job is combined with training (a mix of on-the-job, face-to-face and online sessions) from a training provider and experienced professionals in their teams and studying for professional qualifications. They get time out of the office for formal training, revision, exams and meetings with their assessors. Some enterprising Higher Apprentices have set up study groups, meeting after work and studying together. Even so, you still need to be pretty self-reliant and determined as there’s a lot of independent, remote study (delivered via webinars). There is plenty of opportunity to apply learning in the workplace but the technical content of exams can be demanding. One parent told us: ’The challenge my child finds is that sometimes they are expected to cover something from an exam point of view that they haven’t yet done at work.’

Everyone we met emphasised the hard work, grit and determination required, as well as potentially long hours of work and study during peak times – which intensifies during exam periods. A Higher Apprentice working in Consulting told us: ‘We work pretty hard but if you are driven and motivated it’s a great opportunity.’ The rewards are there for the taking. There’s every opportunity to perform like a graduate and to reach the very top.

The Higher Apprenticeship training doesn’t just expand knowledge of the job and role. It develops skills in many areas. One apprentice said his job had enabled him to learn the importance of time management while another told us she’d gained confidence in public speaking, ‘Public speaking was something I never liked but now it’s second nature to me,’ she said. ‘I recently went into a school and had to explain what mergers and acquisitions were to a group of year 7 children. I compared it to a game of Monopoly, which worked really well.

Support

PwC has an excellent support structure. All PwC employees (even the UK Chairman) have a dedicated people manager – a career coach who supports them with everything from working out their strengths and weaknesses to representing them during the performance management cycle. Higher Apprentices meet with their people managers (all volunteers and generally working in the same area of the business as their coachees) at least once a month. In addition, everyone has a buddy (someone who is a year or two ahead of them) who makes contact before they join, answers questions and queries and supports them through their programme.

Apprentices also have training assessors who keep them on track and ensure they are up to date with their study modules. Assessors (most are external, from training provider Kaplan, but a few are internal) speak to them at least once a month and organise quarterly face-to-face meetings.

A parent described the programme as ‘inspiring’, saying: ‘The way PwC treats its Higher Apprentices is fantastic. They are very good at supporting and motivating them. My child was nominated by a colleague for a Higher Apprenticeship award. On winning they had coffee and cake in the office and my child got a £100 voucher.’

PwC’s school and college leaver programme – who it suits

PwC’s opportunities are aimed at school leavers. However, they will consider career changers too. Approximately half of recruits are direct school leavers and around a quarter have done something else prior to joining – some started university and realised it wasn’t for them, while some are career changers. Diversity matters, so it's perhaps not surprising that there’s no upper age limit – the oldest apprentices to date are in their thirties. Managers say that within five years it’s impossible to distinguish between those who join straight from school and those who join after university. Though there are identical progression opportunities, it’s down to the individual to realise their potential through proactivity and application to the job.

The high-calibre Higher Apprentices we met had no regrets about taking the apprenticeship route rather than heading to university. Some had turned down offers from prestigious universities such as Durham and Edinburgh. A manager said: 'A university education is highly valued by PwC but our school and college leaver programme suits those who enjoy learning in a hands-on environment and being coached by experienced professionals’. One of PwC’s external assessors added: ‘University isn’t the right route for everyone.’ A parent of a second year Higher Apprentice agreed, saying: ‘I didn’t feel university was right for my daughter. She wanted to have a career in accountancy and working for PwC means she has been able to live at home while she gets her foot on the career ladder.’ Some roles are mainly office-based but others are not. Many include travel to and from client offices so you’ll need to be prepared to be flexible and respond well to change and being outside your comfort zone.

Retention is good – 87 per cent of the first cohort stayed the course. The programme provides a great career foundation and an internal careers service helps apprentices plan their next steps. Of those who leave, some fail professional exams (apprentices are generally given two attempts), some travel abroad, some take up employment elsewhere within PwC (mobility is encouraged) or at another company – possibly in a brand new career. PwC says it works hard to accommodate the needs of Higher Apprentices where possible, for example by providing discretionary career breaks and allowing those who leave having failed exams to re-apply to PwC once they’re fully qualified.

The company

PwC is one of the world’s leading professional services organisations.

With offices in 158 countries, PwC advises high profile multinationals, private businesses, entrepreneurs and charities around the globe. PwC help them plan ahead for risks, make sure they’re sustainable and profitable, plus everything to do with measuring, protecting and enhancing what matters most to clients.

PwC launched their Higher Apprenticeship in Professional Services in 2012 – the first firm to do so. The company was named a Top 100 Apprenticeship Employer by the National Apprenticeship Service and City & Guilds in 2013, going on to win the Rolls-Royce award for Large Apprenticeship Employer Newcomer of the Year at the 2014 National Apprenticeship Awards.

Pay, perks and play

‘I was given feedback about the importance of having a work-life balance.’ - PwC apprentice

Higher Apprentices earn around £20,000 (inclusive of London weighting), with annual increases, performance related bonuses and 25 days’ holiday a year on offer. Study materials, courses and first attempt exams are all paid for. Perks include discounted gym membership, discounts on services and products and season ticket travel loans.

Many of the Higher Apprentices we met still live at home (some have long commutes) while others share houses and flats (PwC doesn’t pay for accommodation). Every new joiner is assigned a buddy a couple of years ahead of them to support them in settling in.

Once the working day ends PwC employees can take part in a wealth of activities. Most PwC offices field sports teams (football, netball etc), plus teams for one-off charity events such as the JP Morgan run and the Teach First 10k. If your idea of pleasure is closer to work then PwC Acorns provides an opportunity to be involved in a business development activity and to learn how PwC identifies potential clients and builds their networks. If you’re keen on drama there’s an annual PwC pantomime for charity (Cinderella in 2014 and Dick Whittington planned for 2015), with some 200 employees and alumni performing on stage or working behind the scenes. Each production runs in London’s West End and tours UK cities, with thousands of tickets distributed free-of-charge to disadvantaged children.

Community is important to PwC and employees are encouraged to give back via anything from mentoring and sustainability to helping to paint a school or volunteering for ChildLine. There’s an opportunity to be part of in-house groups too. These include: PwC Parents, PwC Women, GLEE (Gay, Lesbian and Everyone Else), PwC Christians and other religious networks as well as networks for work related interests.

Prospects – life beyond the apprenticeship

‘Nothing is guaranteed. You have to make it happen.’ - PwC manager

PwC has a long history of recruiting school and college leavers, having recognised the value they bring to the business for the past decade. The current programme, incorporating a Higher Apprenticeship, has been running since 2012, so it’s too early to predict how fast the Higher Apprentices will progress up the career ladder but some past joiners from similar programmes are now in senior management roles. Indeed, during a Q&A session on the first day of his induction a single-minded young man asked how he could become a partner. Prospects are excellent – joining straight from school or college gives exactly the same chances of longer term progression as a degree. Indeed PwC expects virtually everyone who completes their Higher Apprenticeship to transfer onto a pathway equivalent to graduate joiners – but with recognition of their two years of PwC experience.

‘We hope they will stay with us and see us as an organisation that has invested in them. There’s opportunity for everyone to progress. We appreciate that some will want different career paths and we would never put pressure on an individual to stay. There's an internal careers service and all employees are actively encouraged to use it to plan their longer-term pathway. PwC offers great opportunities for progression and mobility but at the end of the day it’s up to them.’ - PwC manager

The application process

‘Be well prepared for your interview and think about what you might be asked.’ - PwC employee

PwC recruited a total of 132 Higher Apprentices in 2014 – 60 in Tax, 20 in Consulting, 25 in Assurance and 27 in Deals. Applicants need 240 UCAS points (CCC at A level or equivalent) for Tax and 280 points (BBC) for other areas. You can only count three subjects – DDDD at A level (240 points) won’t do and general studies is not included either. Entry is competitive, with up to 25 applicants per place, but PwC is committed to helping students develop their employability skills, providing preparation calls, insight events and free e-learning tools on psychometric testing and interview skills.

‘We expect them to be professional from the very first day. Nothing is guaranteed. You have to make it happen.’ - PwC manager

Applicants must complete an application form and take online numerical and verbal reasoning tests. Successful applicants are invited to an assessment centre, where they do group and individual exercises, an in-tray test and a written test – tasks that involve prioritising, time management and staying calm under pressure. The final stage is a 45-minute one-to-one interview with a senior member of staff. This is a competency-based interview and might include questions like ‘tell me about a time when you managed a project or set yourself a target.’ Interviewers don’t expect applicants to have business experience – examples can relate to school, family life or sport. One teenager said he had taught a friend how to do a slam dunk in basketball and related it to the world of work.

The apprentices we met highlighted the importance of doing your research, being clear about why you want to take this route and preparing for the sort of questions you might be asked.

‘Those who are successful are clear about what the firm does and what they are going into.’ - PwC manager

Post interview, a follow-up phone call reveals whether candidates have been successful or not. Everyone gets feedback on how they have done and those who don’t get through can reapply three months later. In the months before they join, a ‘Pre-joiners Committee’ made up entirely of current students who’ve been in their shoes, works with those who are successful to help them prepare and feel confident before starting work. New joiners receive newsletters and a photo-book, information about their professional qualification, induction and job role as well as an invitation to a preview day.

How do I find out more?

To find out more about the programme, see case studies from current students and take advantage of PwC’s free employability e-learning tools, visit www.pwc.com/uk/careers/schools
 

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