When deciding what career to pursue after secondary school, Denisa Zima knew that a traditional university or college course was not for her. "I didn't want to go for another three or four years of 9-5, Monday to Friday, kind of experience. I knew I wanted to do something that's more engaging."
Born in Romania, Zima moved to Dublin with her family when she was 13. She always had an aptitude for numbers and problem solving, and loved working part-time throughout secondary school. When her school guidance counsellor made her aware of the Accounting Technicians Ireland (ATI) Apprenticeship, she knew it was the perfect next step for her.
“I really love working, and the thought of going to college full-time just did not sit right with me,” Zima says. “I wanted to gain experience and knowledge straight after my Leaving Certificate, not sit in class for another four years.”
The application process for the apprenticeship involved an application which includes your CV, followed by an interview with ATI. Applicants are then placed on a shortlist which prospective employers involved with the apprenticeship programme can consult and choose which applicants to call to interview. Applicants are then called for a final interview, where, if successful, they may be offered a job on the condition they achieve the appropriate number of points in the Leaving Cert exams, with points generally lower than college and university courses in similar disciplines. "I think it was more straightforward and user-friendly [than the CAO system]," Zima says.
The apprenticeship itself is a fully funded, work-based learning programme, where apprentices earn at least €19,890 a year. The programme hopes to create 125 jobs across the country, and has already been the source of 456 apprentice positions since its foundation in 2017. ATI now partners with more than 302 employers across 17 sectors, a number that is steadily rising with each passing year.
Employers are encouraged to sign up for the scheme as they can avail of a Government annual base grant, per registered apprentice from early 2022.
Apprentices work directly with their employers four days a week, and spend one day per week studying in academic institutions, based in either Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Monaghan, Waterford or Wicklow.
Zima undertook her apprenticeship with leading chartered accountancy firm BDO and studied at Blackrock Further Education Institute. She completed the two years of her apprenticeship at BDO, where she was then offered further employment after the apprenticeship. She continued to work at BDO for one more year, and now works as a client accountant with the TMF Group, where she is continuing to pursue her Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) exams.
Mary Leane, head of finance at the National Gallery of Ireland, is pleased with the gallery's involvement in the programme, in which it has participated for three years.
“Apprentices are not just gaining a qualification, they are also learning work-based skills which they can continue to build throughout their career,” she said. “There are many reasons why someone may not have completed formal training earlier in their career, and the apprenticeship provides an opportunity to progress into new roles and areas.”
Leane believes that this apprenticeship programme works particularly well, in that it is as beneficial for mature students looking to upskill, as it is to younger students first entering the workforce.
Gabriela Airini, head of apprenticeship at ATI, believes that the programme is contributing towards job creation across a range of industries, while also helping the country towards economic recovery. "Graduates are capable of filling all kinds of accounting and finance roles across all sectors of the economy."
Zima believes that there is not enough awareness about apprenticeship programmes, and stigmas around such programmes persist.
“I think there definitely is a stigma around it, like ‘Oh I’m finishing secondary school – I need to go to college’, and as a result apprenticeships aren’t promoted as much.”
She believes that while everyone should choose the course or pathway that is best for them, apprenticeships should be given more consideration. “I think the apprenticeship can be even better [than traditional courses], to put your knowledge to practical use, to learn from your experience and from other people in the workplace.
“The experience that you get is invaluable,” Zima says. “Sometimes you learn way more on the job than you could ever get from the books.”
For more information and to see the full range of apprenticeships on offer, see apprenticeship.ie. For more on ATI, see accountingtechniciansireland.ie. Note: ATI applications remain open until 28 January.