You Don’t Have to Go To University to Become an Accountant

Regular contributor to The Entrepreneur Club, Phil Hendy writes this article about his experience in becoming an accountant. There are lessons to be learned for many young people considering university and the debt they will incur. Read Phil’s story and leave your comments in the box below.

There has been much debate recently with regard to university and tuition fees. This brought back some very personal memories for me
I am forever getting asked the question ‘Where did you go to Uni?’ It is always amusing to note the look on someones face when I say that I didn’t! The next question inevitably comes ‘How are you an accountant?’. So, let me explain in simple terms:

You don’t have to go to University to become an accountant!

Here is my story.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I left school; however, I knew it would be within business. As a result I opted to study a 2 year GNVQ in business studies at Cornwall College – note, instead of doing A-levels! I felt this was a more meaningful course and held more relevance to my future career plans.
Following college I then had to decide what I wanted to do next – the choices were simple, University or go to Work? My parents could not really afford to send me to university and it wasn’t something that particularly appealed to me. I spotted an advert in my local paper for an accounts trainee position as a Modern Apprentice at Ward Ohly, a local practice in Falmouth, Cornwall. There my apprenticeship journey began.

As a modern apprentice I started on a very low salary but was able to do a qualification alongside it. This was the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) course. This involved attending Cornwall College for a day a week. I started at intermediate level as my previous qualification gave me an exemption from foundation. The best part about it was that I didn’t have to pay any course/ exam/ membership fees as this was paid by my employer. As well as that I got my travel costs back too (great on my little moped at the time!).

Alongside the examination element of the course there are practical work based learning criteria that needs to be achieved. This helps with skills required in the workplace and gives additional training in other areas of the business. This actually benefitted my employer as they received help and advice on topics such as health and safety etc.

To top up my money I also had a couple of other jobs, one in a hotel and then bar work in a local pub. I could therefore afford to move out of home.

So, lets recap, I’m studying for free, getting paid and enjoying life outside of work as I have money to spend!

Moving back to my own story, I passed the intermediate level AAT quite easily. When it came to technician; however, I found this a bit tougher.

As a result I decided to move on to a new firm and joined Winter Rule (temping at another firm in between). I was actually starting to earn decent money for the first time and again studying towards my Technician level AAT. They were the perfect sponsor for me and got me through the exams and fully AAT qualified.

This gave me the impetus to really springboard my career and move on to the next stage. Whilst at Winter Rule, I found myself specialising in their legal sector, working on Solicitor clients. At the time I felt the urge to move on and wanted to get out of Cornwall and was able to find a job in Cheltenham at Hazlewoods. The grounding that Winter Rule gave me was perfect to join their corporate services team and again work with legal sector clients. The thing that really appealed for Hazlewoods was that they were prepared to put me on the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) course.

This was over a period of three years; however the study route is slightly different. It was block release so I would attend courses for week or two blocks throughout the year, with a lot of home study in between. Again, this is all sponsored by the employer. They cover the cost of exams, membership, travel etc. The studies were at BPP in Bristol, a specialist in Accountancy training (and other professions).

It’s not all great, one big downside here I found was that I found that due to my experience, I was taking graduate trainees (people from University doing their Chartered Accountant studies) out to clients as their effective senior, knowing they were getting paid more than me – just because they went to university. I soon corrected that by discussing with my manager and partner the unfairness of it; you know what, they gave me a pay rise to match.

So I pass the exams, do the practical experience that goes alongside it and hey presto – I’m a Chartered Certified Accountant, without having to go to university. The long term experience I have has now put me in an ideal position to set up and run my own accounting firm.

As a summary of the benefits of apprenticeships:

Apprentices work so get paid – albeit a lower salary but you’d have to take on some low paid work if sudying at Uni
Study is paid for you – employers cover the costs of attending college
In some cases can achieve professional qualifications quicker – If I had really got my backside in gear I could have been a Chartered Certified accountant by the time I was 23. ICAEW are offering fast track courses via AAT now.
Work experience – you are learning your trade as you are going. It actually makes you better equipped than some University graduates. This is a great attribute when seeking and competing for work.
Move away – still live the university lifestyle by getting a job outside your normal living boundaries.
Have fun – you’ve got the money to go and enjoy yourself
Employers get good quality staff trained from the bottom so know how to give some good graft

I would just clarify that being an apprentice doesn’t necessarily apply to every career choice; however, it is worth exploring the options available. With the cost of tuition fees likely to increase why not look at an apprenticeship as a genuinely viable career opportunity.
If anyone wants any information on how to make an apprenticeship work for you, please get in touch with me. Some basic tips for people looking to do an apprenticeship (in accounting) would be:

  • Check local papers for trainee job positions
  • Ask local accounting firms if they have any vacancies, mention to them the possible benefits of hiring an apprentice
  • Check the websites of the professional organisations mentioned above
  • Visit local colleges/ training centres; they may know of vacancies and courses available

Contributed by Phil Hendy of PAH Accounting, Devizes, Wiltshire

Let’s start a debate! Please leave your comments in the box below.


6 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Go To University to Become an Accountant

  1. A very good point Phil. I would also add that you don’t need to be an accountant or a lawyer to run a law or accounting firm either!

    I didn’t go the traditional uni route and don’t have a first degree but went straight into an MBA (sponsored by my employer) at the age of 37. I graduated with an MBA in Legal Practice at the age of 40 and went on to be CEO of a Legal Firm and COO of Ernst & Young (ISAAS Risk Management Consultancy Division).

    I do wonder the merits of any student doing a masters straight after their first degree when they’ve barely lived any corporate life at all.

    Life and work experience beats degrees hands down, however a decent degree will get you on the ladder if you are lucky and have the right contacts too – long live networking – there should be a module on all degree courses about networking – how about it Roland?!

  2. Hi Elaine
    Thanks for commenting. A module about networking would be a great idea. Must business is done by networking and getting on with people. There is a lesson for those TV Apprentice guys to learn there. Many look at themselves as islands and not needing any one to help them.

  3. Elaine,

    I agree you don’t have to be an accountant or lawyer to run the firm; however, from an accountants perspective the issue of qualified vs unqualified is one that gets my goat. As you can see it took me a fair amount of time to become qualified and get a practicing certificate – and yet someone can set themselves up as an ‘accountant’ without any formal qualifications. A whole different debate I know! Perhaps a future post!

  4. It might well do. It would show you have a good understanding of numbers and even if you never used most of the skills you learned in your studies it would not do you any harm.

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