Francis Clark: How apprenticeships can help you engage with young people [Case study]

30 September 2016 -


A top 25 accountancy firm with offices across the South and South West, PKF Francis Clark shows that you don’t have to be a big corporate in order to engage young people in the workplace

In the case of Francis Clark engaging young people is part of the firm’s DNA: Partner James Robinson started as an apprentice at 18 himself, as did four other senior team members.

All employees feel very strongly about the importance – and benefits – of working with young people to develop the company’s pipeline of employees and future leaders.

What it does…

Francis Clark is involved in a great many activities and programmes, including significant work experience and apprenticeship programmes. It takes part in local careers fairs and speaking events at schools and colleges, often involving both a senior manager from the company and a current apprentice.

According to Robinson: “The students get to see someone their own age that has gone through the programme and now has a job. It’s good for them and for the apprentice’s development.”

For the past eight years Francis Clark has also been involved in initiatives such as Young Enterprise, a charity that empowers young people to harness their personal and business skills.

“It’s a great way of getting talent into the business, and it’s an excellent way to develop our teams’ skills,” said Robinson.

…and why

The company’s interests and those of young people are aligned. “We want to develop our business and get good team members. It’s also a way of giving back to, and being part of, the local community,” said Robinson.

With extensive networks in the area, Francis Clark also gets to help its own clients by signposting talent to them: “If our clients can’t get new team members who are ready for work then ultimately our own client base will dwindle,” he added.

Another reason to engage with potential talent at a young age is the huge amount of loyalty the company gets in return. Young employees can be taught the tricks of the trade and both parties can make sure they’re a good fit for each other.

Robinson has seen that they really value the opportunities they’re given – it makes them want to go the extra mile. And then there’s marketing: “There’s no better way to network and advertise our firm. It’s a brilliant way to get our name out there by just doing the right thing,” he said.

Progression routes from experience to employment

The work experience placements offered by Francis Clark are quite informal and consist of shadowing employees, spending time in all departments of the firm.

Robinson said: “They don’t just sit there with a box of records and get told to do filing. We try very hard to give them a good experience so they can get a taste of what working in accountancy is like.” When it comes to apprenticeships, all candidates go through a formal interview process, but Robinson believes there’s scope for more, such as problem-solving and presentation exercises in groups to make the experience more educational.

Those who succeed receive one-to-one mentoring throughout their apprenticeship, which also helps to develop the coaching and mentoring skills of existing employees. And all apprentices are involved in community work: they also go into schools to spread the word.

Why SMEs have a role to play

Robinson recognises that many smaller businesses are put off from engaging with schools and young people. The challenge, he says, is establishing what can be done.

“There are so many different people doing different things that a lot of SMEs just think ‘I’ll leave it to the big boys’. Employers don’t know where to start.”

Equally though, “schools don’t have the time or the network to get involved. The result is that no one does anything – and it’s the young people that lose out.”

Some employers, Robinson says, are also a little naïve: “Just because school-leavers are more computer-literate than we are doesn’t mean they understand how to apply that to a business. That’s the employer’s job, and they need to be educated so they understand their own responsibilities.”

“Joined up thinking” – simplifying how employers and schools interact

Robinson would like to see steps taken to simplify how employers engage with schools.

This could be in the form of a central or regional database where all opportunities available to employers and schools are made clearly visible so that they can connect and sign up to activities they want to take part in.

According to Robinson: “We need a bit of joined-up thinking. It’s a bit of a mess and it doesn’t need to be.”

In the absence of a government led initiative, Francis Clark is experimenting itself.

“We are trying to create a matrix so that employers can actually see what activities they can take part in, and the commitment that they come with,” said Robinson.

Francis Clark hopes it could provide a model for others to build on.

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