Imagine skipping student loans and diving straight into paid, on-the-job training. That’s what Grace Hardy did. This National Apprenticeship Week, she tells us how her hands-on approach to learning helped hone her business skills and ignite her entrepreneurial spirit.
Like a lot of young people, I knew I wanted to start a business when I grew up. But I wasn’t sure how to get there without continuing higher education.
My severe dyslexia meant I never wanted to study business at university, where I knew I would struggle to write essays, a dissertation, and take notes in lectures.
Still my school was very focused on telling pupils they should gain a degree. They never suggested there were other options – so I decided to find them myself.
“An apprenticeship sounded too good to be true”
I did a lot of research into audit apprenticeships and discovered so many benefits. They would provide a paid full-time job, pay for my qualification and I would enjoy all the advantages of being an employee? It all sounded too good to be true.
Certainly, it was a far better option than having to spend £9,000 a year in university fees to gain a qualification, which can make thousands of uni students feel let down when they look for employment.
With an apprenticeship, I could also stay living at home in South East London and avoid getting myself into thousands of pounds of debt. And I knew that apprentices have better job prospects.
Following my A Levels, I was thrilled to receive an offer for a four-year apprenticeship from Mazars. It’s among one of the largest firms in its sector and employs over 3,300 people in the UK.
It was a fantastic experience. I feel so lucky that I was one of three chosen audit apprentices. Mazars gave me the entrepreneurial foundation blocks I needed to start my own firm. I know I wouldn’t have gained these had I chosen to study a degree instead.
“It gave me the chance to see inside the business”
University doesn’t provide the kind of opportunity to put all the theory into practice across a real scenario. Whereas my course meant that I would go off to college for a block of time to learn the theory, and then very quickly be able to put it into practice.
Having the chance to see inside so many other businesses was the thing I found most helpful when I came to start my own. Learning from people above you is so valuable: you just don’t get that at university. I think that’s why so many Gen Zers experience career regret.
For three years, I’d learned directly from experienced accountants. I was even given a business mentor, and was encouraged to ask as many questions as possible to learn something new every day.
“I was training graduates who were older than me”
Working while studying did wonders for my early career development. In my second year, aged just 20, I was helping to train graduates who were older than me who had all the theory but not the practical experience.
For example, younger people can often be intimidated by phone calls or presentations at work, and struggle to engage in corporate talk. But communicating with clients is a big part of my job and is essential for any entrepreneur. I knew it was vital to do it well.
Thankfully my apprenticeship really built up my confidence; by the end of the course I became used to finding a way to get my point of view across and strive for the best outcome which was a valuable experience.
In total, by the time I came to start my own firm last year, I had three years of client experience under my belt. For a graduate, they’re only just leaving university at the same age and have less chance of building up a strong CV or attracting a high entry-level salary.
“Clients tell me I’m very young to be running my own business”
I have no regrets over not going to university because I know I wouldn’t have been happy. I’m a big advocate for apprenticeship schemes now as well as financial education and could see I had the tools to teach people.
So many people don’t understand basics such as how to budget because it’s never taught at school so there’s a lot of free information on my website to help fill some of the gaps.
My clients will often comment that I’m very young to be running my own business but they say it in a nice way. Many of them are part of the next generation of entrepreneurs, like me.
As part of Gen Z, I want freedom and flexibility meaning self-employment is the best option. My apprenticeship put me in the best position to do this and at the earliest opportunity.
To all those budding young entrepreneurs who don’t want to go to university, here’s what no-one told me: there is another choice. And it’s the best one you can make.