When Sara Caplan was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers in the UK, the network of firms wanted to diversify the workplace. “We typically recruited from a number of universities, but we knew we weren’t accessing the diverse talent pool we thought we could get,” says Caplan, PwC’s National Skills Leader. “We didn’t have enough routes into the firm for people who might not have gone to university, so we looked around for an apprenticeship program to bring people in straight from school, but nothing met our needs.”
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention, and so Caplan set about creating a diverse talent pool that traditional competitors in the marketplace such as Deloitte and KPMG could benefit from. “It was interesting because we had never worked together before,” says Caplan. “We had to be very clear that were not colluding on pricing, but were genuinely interested in creating a talent pool. Everyone could see the benefit and got on board.”
The result was a success. The number of higher apprentices at PwC grew initially from 60 to 160 in 2015. “It’s a really valid alternative to university,” says Caplan. “Either you go to university or you go down a work-based route straight away. Both are equally as effective.”
Higher apprenticeships in Australia
Just over two years ago Caplan brought PwC’s higher apprenticeship model to Australia. It’s an agenda that sees PwC work with some of Australia’s largest employers to offer apprenticeship programs where participants have the opportunity to complete a diploma, advanced diploma or associate degree while also working ‘on the job’.
The program means that year 12 students no longer need to attend university in order to become, for example, an accountant or risk management consultant. “You can use higher apprenticeships to bring people straight from school as a new route into your organisation or you can use it to get people to progress from the shop floor to management,” says Caplan. “It can be for new entrants into the workforce or as an uplift pathway.”
Everyone on a higher apprenticeship at PwC has a contract of employment and training and is fully paid. “They are on a permanent contract with a break point if they don’t succeed in their apprenticeship,” says Caplan.
Under traditional circumstances, Caplan says the higher apprentices PwC is currently employing would never have been recruited. “We weren’t targeting them before, some were unemployed and some had dropped out of university,” she says. “Until we advertised this new way of entering PwC learning and earning, we wouldn’t have them.”
Despite the unconventional recruitment pathway, the calibre of apprentices has delighted Caplan. “They have been absolutely determined to prove this is a great route,” she says. “Often they have had to go against what their parents have said by choosing to go straight into work. They are so motivated, enthusiastic and have so much initiative.”
The PwC higher apprenticeship program, in conjunction with the Federal Government, offers 12-18 month professional apprenticeship programs. A number of leading organisations have now implemented versions of this program, including Woolworths, Westpac and Gold Coast University Hospital.
Woolworths’ experience of higher apprenticeships
Woolworths were approached to see if they would like to partner with PwC as part of the NSW higher apprenticeship pilot program. “We were immediately keen to find out more and be involved,” says Kate Green, head of Woolworths’ food academy. “Retail is a diverse and inclusive environment for team members and leaders who have formal qualifications such as university or who have worked their way up through joining Woolworths from school and made a long term career.”
Woolworths currently have 16 participants in the higher apprenticeship program. The participants are in team manager or assistant store manager roles and have ambitions to become store managers. “Woolworths were keen to be involved in the higher apprenticeship pilot as it allows participants to work full time and complete a diploma in subjects that directly supports their development and goal role within the business,” says Green. “It is a great opportunity to provide formal qualifications that align to future skills and roles, as you are able to partner with TAFE to tailor the modules and develop on-the-job projects to embed the learning from each unit.”
Green remarks that the partnership has meant that mentors from PwC and Woolworths work with higher apprentices from each company, giving the apprentices diversity in their mentor relationships and leadership opportunities.
“We are creating a new movement,” says Caplan. “Many employers view taking on apprentices as a bureaucratic process, but this is an excellent route to get great new talent. We are definitely finding that employers are starting to champion higher apprenticeships.”