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My apprenticeship journey at O2

Twenty-year-old Ashleigh James shares how and why she decided to do an apprenticeship rather than go to university

Making decisions about your future and preparing to enter the working world for the first time can be incredibly daunting. At just 17 years old it feels like you are making decisions about what you are going to do for the rest of your life, which is no small challenge.

I found the first three weeks of sixth form very stressful; it seemed like everyone (including my twin sister) knew that they wanted to go to university except me. I visited several universities with my family, finding out about the courses and looking around the campuses.

As I was listing my preferences for university back in 2017 I still wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted to go. I picked my top five and received my offers, but before I’d even got my A-Level results I declined them all.

I just had a feeling that university wasn’t for me. Around the same time that I was visiting campuses I heard on the radio about a government website that listed apprenticeship schemes. When I mentioned this to my mum she told me to broaden my search to blue-chip companies as well, and my searches were prompted by the big names I recognised on the high street.

I only really looked in-depth into apprenticeships in the finance sector as I wasn’t interested in any other areas. I saw loads for business admin but not as many finance positions. One really limiting factor for me was the level companies offered. I found that many apprenticeships – across all sectors – were offering Level 2 or 3. I was only looking for a Level 4 as I was completing my A-Levels so this would have been the next step up. Finding one of these was tricky.

When I was applying two years ago I didn’t come across many companies advertising their apprenticeships. However, I can see that things have changed; there is much more promotion from companies advertising on the internet and also a big push from the government, which has recently come out with a new TV advert.

It was helpful suggestions from my parents encouraging me to check the websites of particular companies that led me to my ideal role at O2. But I know many young people need guidance and direction on where to look. Companies actively reaching out to potential recruits in the places that matter to them, such as social media, will certainly help.

Thankfully choosing an apprenticeship was the best decision I’ve made, and possibly will ever make, in my life. I still visit friends from school and university on the weekend but I don’t have to worry about debt, my workload is manageable, and I receive on-the-job training and learning opportunities. The lifestyle suits me perfectly.

In my two years there I’ve been trying to get my teeth into as much as I can, from financial forecasting and analysis to presenting results on a monthly basis. The first time I did this I was terrified. But it’s been an amazing opportunity to grow my confidence and cement my financial knowledge of O2.

At the same time I’ve been studying for my Level 4 CIMA qualification. It’s a tough balancing act and sometimes I prioritise the day job – especially around different peaks in reporting. At other times, when work is quieter, I can get my head down to study. It takes discipline but when I look at the choices my friends and even my sister made I know that I made the perfect choice for me.

After finishing my finance apprenticeship I was overwhelmed to be selected to become a finance graduate. That means when I finish O2’s graduate scheme in 2022, on top of my Level 4 apprenticeship I’ll have completed a degree-equivalent Level 7 apprenticeship. On completion of my CIMA exams I’ll be a fully-qualified accountant. It’s the next step in my ultimate ambition to climb to the top – see you up there!

My top tips for employers looking to attract young talent

Show off your young employees. If your corporate website feels impersonal it may put young people off. Leading with videos or case studies of those who have recently gone through the process and can talk about their experiences of the scheme will help to bring it to life.

Get involved on social. Educational YouTube channels and social media are a great way for young people to find out more about their post-16 options. Getting the word out there about your grad and apprenticeship schemes through your channels will make a real difference.

Reach out to schools and colleges. Careers counsellors and teachers are some of the first points of call for students looking to find out more about their options, so providing information for school careers fairs is a great way to get in front of students.

Ashleigh James is an apprentice/graduate and finance analyst at O2