Background to the Big 4 Change in Criteria for Traineeships
If you are in your final year in the UK at College, aiming for a Big 4 firm, you might feel a bit peeved by this news. I am sorry about that. When things change they can change fast. If you have been following the Big 4 in recent years, you will be aware of the changing developments towards academic entry requirements into these prestigious firms.
PwC, a few years back, decided to use new methods to hire their trainees. They became focussed on assessing the school 'A level' results and instead used criteria to assess if the actual school was a high performing school or not. They determined that an 'A' from an elite school was easier to achieve than a ‘B’ from a poor performing school. Most of the UK's poor performing schools are state schools in economically challenged areas. This was a massive shout out to underprivileged students to rethink their aspirations and dream big!
Deloitte also has their Bright Start programme running in the UK for a few years for school leavers. KPMG have a school leavers apprenticeship too, of 5 years duration. Now, EY have been actively promoting their take on a school leaver entry option They are scrapping the need for a College degree instead entry criteria minimum is 3 A levels at ‘B’ grade. This is all a giant leap forward by the Big 4. It effectively democratises the firms and makes them an equal opportunities employer, especially for those who can’t afford a college education.
Many companies and international offices of the Big 4 will be watching this development with avid curiosity. But I think there may be a few surprises in store.
Why I think you need to be wary
Let’s take their clients, and the employees of their clients. When preparing for a meeting it is the norm to have a look at the attendees Linked In profiles to try and establish credibility of the person they are meeting and to find common ground. Put yourself in the Clients shoes. You are paying a substantial fee to EY to do your audit or tax work, not to mention consulting fees – Ouch! That fee is based on the understanding that EY are going to send in the brightest team to you whatever the job. Unfortunately, if their client’s employees are University educated, and for most Plc’s, that is often the case in non-admin roles, they are going to make certain assumptions about someone who didn’t go to University and endure the pain that a degree takes to obtain. I don’t think in the immediate short term this is going to sit easy with clients. Change like this is going to take a decade of proven positive results. Even if some of those recruited after leaving school are brighter than their degree educated peers.
Also, how are these non-college educated trainees going to business develop in future years? College is a fantastic networking hub. If a student really applies themselves to the task, they can leave college with not just a degree, but a vast array of contacts, who will eventually be in decision making positions in their respective companies. Who are these contacts going to extend an invite to a meeting to tender as their Auditor? Business Development is mostly about who you know, so that you can at least get a meeting to pitch for the business. How are the Big 4 going to enable these people to network efficiently from what could be a standing start and possibly a zero, relevant, contact base? How are they going to make Director, let alone Partner, if they can’t win business?
My main concern is the elephant in the room – money. Is EY or any of these firms and companies, who are doing away with the need for a college education, going to pay the same salaries, as they have done in the past to college graduates. I think not. I was in Big 4 HR for too long and am very cynical about this PR stunt. I think with technology advances it is becoming increasingly easier to execute on audit and tax assignments than it used to be. Clients know this too, as their own internal accounting software is getting easier to run reports and make filings a doddle. They are querying their bills. I think the status of Accountants is going to decline fast, as AI speeds up. And I think the Big 4 are panicking and the partners, already badly hit in the last recession and a probable looming Brexit induced recession, have hit upon this as a good idea to cut costs, while hoping to preserve their fees.
I don’t think those without a degree are going to be paid the same. I think all the Big 4 see this as an opportunity to cut their salary bill, and probably by a good margin. Deloitte are paying according to Glassdoor Between £15,029 and 24,000 on their Brightstart programme for school leavers, depending on what year you are in and location. Considering a starting graduate salary in the Big 4 in London is over €28,500 (much less in regional offices) this is a big difference and a big saving when the work of the school leaver in their first 5 years on the structured training programme may well be very similar to a 1st year Graduate Trainee. If you look at the comparison between the two programmes, kindly shown on EY’s website, it clearly shows that the work is the same.
'Them' and 'Us' Mentality
I think it will breed a bit of a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality amongst the trainee intake, with those holding a degree begrudging, or worse, looking down on those without one. The degree educated will have the pain of paying off their fees from college for a good many years and they will, secretly, I am sure, think it is very unfair. How are the Big 4 going to recompense them? Promotions and bigger bonuses probably. I know firms are offering bigger interest free loans to graduates and much smaller ones to school leavers.
These non-college trainees will have to have backbone and resilience to prove themselves over and over again, not only to their peers, but to the management, partners and clients. EY suspects they have resilience and grit in bucket fulls, which they should have, on paper, if they fought their way up in a poor performing school to achieve 3 ‘B’s. But is EY generalising?
I went to a local Catholic, mixed gender, school. It wasn’t a particularly good school (though it is now), but we didn’t know that at the time and I didn’t get a rough ride. I enjoyed learning along with my cohort of peers in the top stream. I have two degrees to my name too. For my first degree in Business and Finance, I worked every spare hour to pay for just my living expenses in London. But my first degree was free! There were no college fees in my day, if there were I would probably not have gone to University.
I think there is a bit of dubious generalising going on for sure. I know the snobbery that goes on behind closed doors, about those who didn’t attend private school, can be particularly scathing. I never admitted to going to a non-fee paying school. I was lucky to have worked overseas for most of my career, so I rarely got asked what school I went to. But in the UK this is a common, elitist, question.
I have a rounded Surrey accent too and it has helped me to get where I had to get to in my career, otherwise known as a ‘posh’ accent, which I have tempered down over the last decade. This may be another hurdle to overcome for those from rural state schools, who may not have a neutral accent, because make no mistake, we still have a long way to go to accept people of all accents, as being equally intelligent, particularly at more senior levels. If you don’t think that is the case, you are living on another planet.
If you are going through College currently, don’t despair. I think there is a long way to go for this to be fully fleshed out and to be proven. Just make sure you network your peers and leave college with an impressive LinkedIn contacts number, aim for over 1000 contacts by the time you leave college and nurture your relationships with high-fliers after college too.
If you can’t afford to go to college now, and are weighing up options in Accountancy, this news will come as a relief. But as I mentioned, I think the route to Partner will prove much tougher without a college network to tap into. If I were in your shoes, I would try and get into one of the Big 4 now on their relevant Apprentice schemes for school leavers. Then do a degree at college for networking purposes, in your spare time (after your professional qualification exams) and build up a network for use in your thirties to accelerate your career to Director and Partner, if you choose to stay in a Big 4 firm. It can be done. I was working 60-70 hours per week at KPMG and Deloitte, while studying for my second degree in Law. They might even pay for the degree! And befriend every trainee you come across, because you never know where they might go next after qualifying.
I will be watching this space closely, as I expect other employers, in the corporate space and possibly law firms, to follow suit over the next few years. I look forward to seeing the results from the first intake of trainees. I hope they ace their CA exams!
#apprenticeship #big4 #ey #pwc #kpmg #deloitte #schoolleavers #brightstart
Clare Reed is a leading global expert Interview Coach with over 22 years global interviewing and coaching experience.