Traditionally, the route to enter professions such as law or accounting has almost exclusively been via a university degree. But with undergraduates facing astronomical debts and no guaranteed job at the end of their studies, professional service firms are increasingly looking at alternative schemes to help capture talent from an earlier age and, in some cases, enable recruits to bypass university altogether.
The accounting profession has perhaps been a forerunner of these alternative routes.
Deloitte, one of the ‘big four’ firms, takes on more than 1800 trainees every year. At its Newcastle office, located on the city’s Quayside, industrial placements, scholar schemes and summer vacation schemes are all available to prospective trainees.
Stephen Hall, head of Deloitte Newcastle, says the primary aim of these schemes is to “broaden the base of those who wants to come to Deloitte as well as ensure applicants fully understand the role they’re applying for.”
In addition to Deloitte’s work to broaden its base, it is making a conscious effort to build more diversity into the firm.
“Fundamentally, if Deloitte is going to be attractive to businesses in the North East as an advisory firm then it needs to reflect society and the people that live in our region,” says Stephen.
To help achieve a more diverse workforce, the firm has begun adopting blind recruitment methods when awarding its trainee contracts.
“When you apply, you obviously put down all your information but this is removed before it’s given to the early-stage recruiters,” Stephen explains. “Things like gender, name, which university you went to and which part of the country you’re from. You’re then just an ID number which helps to remove the possibility of any unconscious bias.”
Stephen reveals that the team has undergone further training in preventing unconscious bias: “So, for example, in the past we may have asked an applicant in an interview about their gap year to India. But if you think about it, that’s very elitist. Some people don’t have the ability to travel the world. Instead, we now tailor questions that cut out this wider stuff. We ask applicants about their part-time jobs or about their educational experiences instead.”
To encourage more engagement at an even earlier age, Deloitte Newcastle has also partnered with Cardinal Hume School in Gateshead, where it mentors pupils and encourages them to visit the office at Trinity Gardens.
“Some may have never been in an office with a large atrium like ours. By visiting, we can show them what it’s like and hopefully they will see that it could be a place for them in the future.”
The firm is also conscious that the profession of accounting is changing away from the technical ‘number crunching’ side (increasingly being delivered by technology), to being more relationship-focused. It has therefore started mentoring students on their employability skills.
Stephen highlights how the firm now describes its recruitment on its website, where it says: ‘Deloitte is the place for the curious, those who know that imagination, natural ingenuity, delivering solutions and problem solving are what humans are made of. Opportunity awaits.’
He concludes: “We want to show people that you don’t necessarily have to be numbers-oriented to be an accountant. Also, that anyone who wants to be an accountant in the North East should feel as though Deloitte is a home for them, and that we’re not going to be making judgements on anything apart from their raw potential and natural ability.”
In recognition of the strides accountancy has made in alternative recruitment methods, the law sector is now making headway in this area too.
Muckle LLP, is one of the region’s law firms leading the way as part of the trailblazing North East Solicitor Apprenticeship (NESA) programme.
A consortium of regional law firms (Muckle LLP, Sintons Law, McDaniel & Co, QualitySolicitors Smith Roddam, Womble Bond Dickinson and North Tyneside Council) has joined forces with CILEx Law School and City Law School to deliver a six-year apprenticeship programme.
Each firm recruits between one and three apprentices each year who will work to become qualified lawyers, without the need to go to university.
For Muckle LLP’s managing partner, Jason Wainwright, offering an alternative route to become a lawyer is of personal importance.
“I was the first person in my family to go to university and I know that if I was in the same position now – faced with the prospect of a £50,000 of debt – I probably wouldn’t have gone.”
The first NESA cohort of 13 students began their apprenticeships in September 2017, following an open day and recruitment process jointly held by the consortium.
Each now spends four days at their respective law firms and one day at college, where they meet up with their fellow apprentices.
They receive a starting salary of at least £15,000 a year, real life work experience, and qualifications, without the burden of a university debt. In turn, Jason explains, the firms also benefit by getting access to eager young apprentices and a pool of talent that can help with administrative tasks.
Although Muckle LLP’s apprentices are only a few months in, Jason has been hugely impressed with how they’ve settled in.
“They’re enthusiastic and open-minded and they are much more mature than I expected,” he says. “I was a bit concerned – because they were 18-year-olds – that their parents would be on the phone all the time. But I needn’t have worried. It’s working really well.”
The NESA programme has also been nominated for two North East Equality Awards and a British Legal Award 2017.
For Jason, this recognition demonstrates a fascination in the fact that a number of law firms have decided to work together to offer the programme.
“It’s so unusual and there’s been a lot of interest because of that,” he says.
Jason reports that Muckle LLP is already receiving enquires from prospective apprentices for next year’s in-take, as well as from other law firms and larger organisation that employ in-house legal teams, which are keen to get involved.
As the battle for talent continues in professional services and with university fees set to grow, it seems likely that more firms will follow in the footsteps of Deloitte and Muckle LLP in offering alternative routes into their professions – in turn, opening professional services up to be more inclusive and more diverse.