Cheaper way to the money
Accountants are canny people. When counting the cost of an enterprise, they are not normally slow to discover there is no point in spending money unnecessarily.
Which explains why during the past three years there has been an explosion in the numbers of young people rejecting the usual academic route into chartered accountancy in favour of the on-the-job alternative.
After all, why run up debts studying at university when you can be earning while learning?
As a result, it is not in the engineering or construction industries that parity of esteem between degree study and on-the-job training is being pioneered, but in the staid offices of the financial world.
The Association of Accounting Technicians, the awarding body that oversees accountancy training, has seen a nine-fold rise in the numbers shunning the university route into chartered accountancy in favour of the vocational route.
In 2000, just 1 per cent of the student intake with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) had AAT qualifications rather than a degree. By 2003 the figure was 9 per cent.
Of last year's intake of chartered accountancy students with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), one in four held a qualification from the association.
With the cost of university tuition fees set to rise to pound;3,000 a year, the association is predicting that the day will soon arrive when more people are following the vocational route to chartered accountancy than the university route.
The turning point came in June 2000 when the association launched a fast-track way of becoming an Associate of the Institute of Chartered Accountants (known as an ACA) with the ICAEW.
Clare Morley, the association's director of education and training, said:
"The route into chartered accountancy was predominately a graduate one. It has really only been in the past three years or so that there have been real routes in via the AAT system. Employers are telling us that they want apprentices and can't get enough of them. Young people need to be made more aware of this route. However, there is still this idea that academic training is better than skills or vocational training.
"There is so much work that needs to be done to challenge that and to raise the esteem of skills training."
Karen Sands is a shining example. She left school at 16 and by the age of 20 had become the youngest chartered accountant known to the ICAEW.
After getting 10 GCSEs, she joined Critchley's in Oxford as a trainee accountant. Within 18 months she passed her AAT exams at NVQ levels 2, 3 and 4 - at foundation, intermediate, and technician level - before studying chartered accountancy.
She said: "I was bored with school and knew I wanted to be an accountant.
When I researched it, I realised I could get there quicker than by going to university. It was a gamble, but it definitely paid off for me.
"I believe I became the youngest chartered accountant in the world. I challenge anyone to achieve it at a younger age."
Another AAT success story is Julia Craig. She worked in an accountants'
office in her gap year, and quickly realised that work-based training would reap greater rewards than degree study.
After her A-levels she joined an office in the west Midlands intending to gain practical business experience before going to university, but switched to taking AAT qualifications instead, achieving technician level within three years.
She is now training to become an ACA via the association's fast-track route. "The fast-track route was ideal for me," she said. "It recognised and valued the experience and knowledge I gained."
Lisa Hunter also left school with 10 GCSEs, but rather than progress to A-levels opted to gain practical experience through a modern apprenticeship.
She said: "I wasn't sure how I wanted my career to develop. My colleague recommended the AAT because it gives you all the basics, and is very wide-ranging."
She receives support from her company, Maverick Presentation Products in Reading, Berkshire, which pays for her textbooks and provides paid study leave.
Her line manager, Derek Kennedy, said: "As a relatively small company we do not have a huge training budget, so any additional funding from outside agencies such as the Modern Apprenticeships can make a real difference.
"When I recruited Lisa I did so in the knowledge that we would gain funding to support her through the AAT's accounting qualification enabling her to grow into her role."