Suited and booted
Come along to my office," says Katie Taylor. The 20-year-old trainee accountant leads the way from the pastel-blue reception area at the headquarters of Heyrod, a building firm in Oldham, through a door with her name on it, and sits down behind a desk buried beneath stacks of invoices, each one of them six inches deep.
"Er, I haven't had a chance to deal with them since coming back from holiday," she says. "I'm in the middle of doing the payroll. They like to put some responsibility on me. And I like having it, although I worry about getting it wrong. But that doesn't happen often."
Katie is two years into an apprenticeship heralded in the North-west as an alternative to university on account of its combination of vocational work with higher education qualifications.
Katie's professional apprenticeship means she gets a day off each week from her pound;12,000-a-year job to study at Emile Wharf college in Manchester.
All being well, she will qualify as a chartered accountant in three years.
So, why did she choose sorting through stacks of invoices over a campus life?
A survey for Barclays bank in May this year found that students racked up an average pound;12,069 debt during their higher education studies.
Certainly, fear of debt was a factor for Katie. She took her GCSEs at Manchester high school for girls before getting a C and two Ds in her A-levels in English language and literature, accountancy and business studies at the nearby Xaverian college.
Katie says: "I loved college life and didn't want to leave. Most of my friends went on to university but I didn't want to. I didn't like the idea of being poor and I didn't want loads of debt. My parents don't work and I'd probably have had to pay my own way.
"We had a presentation at college about the professional apprenticeship.
I'd always been good at numbers and that led to me wanting to train as an accountant. It seemed the best option for me.
"I hadn't particularly wanted to work in the construction industry but the opportunity came up. They started me off doing simple things - filing and opening post - but within six months I was working on the purchase ledger and bank reconciliation."
Her salary has enabled her to buy a car and shop at Selfridges - and she admits to developing a penchant for posh shoes, like Carrie in television's Sex and the City, although in rainy Manchester she can't wear them as often as she'd like.
She goes out at weekends and doesn' regret passing up a life on the campus for one in which she is the youngest person working in a sparsely populated office on an Oldham industrial site.
"Everyone is lovely here," she says. "When I'm qualified I'd like to work in a big accountancy firm - and I believe I'll have an advantage over other applicants due to the years of experience I'll have had working here."
Jim Ness, Heyrod's contracts director, agrees. "We are under no illusions," he says. "We know anyone who is ambitious will go elsewhere unless we can fulfil their needs. My daughter had straight As at A-level but found it difficult to get a job because everyone has straight As.
"The big benefit to Katie is that she is getting experience from the grassroots upwards, and being paid while doing it."
He admits that Heyrod, founded 26 years ago and now with a staff of about 400, is benefiting, too.
Skills Solution, an operating company of Manchester Enterprises, the economic development agency, matched Katie to the post - in effect screening her for the firm and so reducing recruitment costs.
Skills Solution also covers the training costs of her two-year professional apprenticeship, with Heyrod paying for the subsequent three-year Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) studies.
Other benefits include the chance to mould a young worker to its corporate outlook and for new talent to be introduced into an industry which traditionally has a less than glamorous image.
Heyrod's turnover has doubled to pound;40m in the past five years amid a housing boom. Even so, Mr Ness says, it is still hard to attract high-quality workers into the industry.
Professional apprenticeships were devised by Skills Solution, which also piloted the scheme with 12 people in early 2003. The scheme is expected to take on another 200 people in the next 18 months.
Paul Thomas, deputy chief executive of Manchester Enterprises, says previous attempts to push a higher-level apprenticeship were short-lived due to a lack of cash, but the Learning and Skills Council has approved this latest bid for co-financing.
"We are very pleased with how it is going and I would hope to see it rolled out on a bigger scale," he says. "That would, of course, depend on the Department for Education and Skills - but I would hope it is something the Government could grab hold of on the other side of a general election.
"We've had a lot of interest from schools which never would have dreamt of sending pupils on apprenticeships, such as Manchester grammar school. We are working on promoting it to companies. We have to get past a human resources department bias in some, but I see no reason why it can't become as highly regarded as a degree qualification.
"Employers are starting to appreciate the benefit of bringing people into the workplace."
The "earn and learn" qualification is offered in accountancy, insurance, engineering and service-sector management. Next year, a construction apprenticeship will also be launched. The potential of professional apprenticeships has not gone unnoticed by the Government, which wants half of young people to be in higher education by 2010.
Speaking on Radio 4's You and Yours programme, skills minister Ivan Lewis said of the scheme: "What is marvellous about this new qualification system is that it destroys the myth, the false choice between vocational and higher education.
"We need more apprentices in this country, and we need more conventional graduates. The key thing in terms of achieving parity of esteem for vocational routes is to ensure that you can go from an apprenticeship into a degree by working and learning simultaneously - and that is why I very much welcome this professional apprenticeship.
"It is good to see this initiative coming bottom-up, innovation coming from the North-west."