Graduates vs. school leavers: top accountancy firms discuss

Accountancy firms are recruiting school leavers and graduates in an attempt to harness young talent. But which route is most beneficial to business: hiring school leavers, or graduates? Four top accountancy firms share their views below.

PwC recruits both and trains each group so that they eventually become interchangeable in terms of skills and the opportunities available to them. Richard Irwin, head of student recruitment at PwC, said: “We’ve got school leavers who joined us nine or 10 years ago who are now on track for partner and senior management level. We are very demanding and expect all our people to progress. It’s not about what they studied years ago. These different routes into the firm provide a good hedge for us. We also found there were areas, such as junior transactions work, that can be done by higher apprentices, who can then go on to the graduate track if they want.” Asked whether school leavers and apprentices are comparable with graduates, he said: “That question’s already been answered for us. They may even progress faster.”

Liz Bingham, EY’s managing partner for talent in the UK and Ireland says: “School leavers often show more loyalty in the long run and I’m not sure what drives that. At 18, an age difference of three of four years is significant and as an employer we provide appropriate levels of support. Youngsters are not as well-rounded or resilient and we’ve got a pool of former school leavers to help via our buddying system.” She adds, however that despite there being a lot of focus on hiring school leavers, graduates will still be central to accountancy firms’ recruiting policies. “Arguably, in our advisory business, degrees are more useful.”

Rob Fryer, head of student recruitment at Deloitte, agrees that school leavers need more support than graduates. He said: “It’s quite different for a business that’s used to graduates. The profile of school leavers is very similar in terms of capabilities, intelligence, aptitude for work and enthusiasm but they are three or four years younger than graduates, who are more used to working on their own and being independent, so we had to implement pastoral care.”

Kate O’Hara, managing director for human capital and diversity in the UK and Ireland at Accenture, says it was not a choice between either graduates or school leavers but offering different routes to join the firm. “The core skills are the same: the ability to communicate, problem solving, and collaboration, whether you’re a graduate, apprentice or intern. For us, it’s about early engagement. Hiring the best and the brightest is a mantra for us.”