Not getting a degree in preference to 'school leaver' programmes - my word of caution

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jr123
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I'm making a post here for the hell of it. I don't know why, it just struck me to do so and perhaps it will be helpful for the long term goals of some readers. I joined on what I believe was PwC's first ever attempt at the non graduate professional staff programme (as bulk intakes rather than one offs) and was relatively far on in my career.


I joined as a Tax Technician on what they used to call the HEADstart programme. They call it Higher Apprenticeships these days. I worked there since 2005. I made Senior Manager 2 years ago, which is one grade below Director (the old fashioned salaried partner). However, I did and always have hated tax.


I won't bore you with why I was doing something I knew I disliked, but I left the firm early this year, amicably. My real issue is that I now possess a CV that says I was earning £85,000 in a tax role at PwC. This same CV doesn't have a degree on it. The brighter of you will realise the problem in changing my career completely. I am either over or under qualified. 50% of the time I get told that the manager doesn't want to work with a junior who was previously senior manager at a Big 4 and the other 50% of the time I'm told that I am under-qualified because I don't possess a degree to start again at something entirely new. You can leapfrog degrees with experienced hire programmes ONLY insofar as your experience is applicable for the role. Therefore I can easily get a variety of tax roles anywhere in London, except I don't want to work in tax of course. Therefore I'm left with a minor adjustment whereby I work somewhere similar (at which point the overqualified issue comes into play) or a major adjustment whereby I try for an entirely new career (I am 28), only to get refused at application sift since I can't fill out a degree for a 25k job...


My point is that if you are doing tax or whichever line of service from a school leaver position you need to make sure it's pretty much what you want to do with the bulk of your life. Tax is very very incestuous for lack of a better word. It is extremely and I mean extremely rare to hear of anyone leaving tax except for another tax role after the senior associate level. Some people disappear for a few years here and there, but you almost always hear of them eventually being re-hired in the same role, working in industry as a tax contact or going to another Big 4. Once you are tarred with that brush then you're stuck with it for good or ill. If you love tax or whatever line of service you're applying to then you're laughing. Otherwise please be very, VERY certain in your goals and if you're not, I'd seriously consider getting a degree as a backup.


All the best.
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Squ33zed
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Very informative. So have you decided what you are going to do now? Would going back to university to get a degree be an option?
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MagicNMedicine
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Some good points, but also as you haven't had a degree, you are eligible for student finance and so can do a degree in something different now.

Someone with an engineering degree, that becomes an engineer, reaches a similar level of seniority to yourself and then decides they don't want to do engineering any more, is in a similar situation albeit I take your point that they would at least be able to get through the initial filters for a generic graduate scheme.

I do think some people overegg the argument "a degree is worthless, you may as well do an apprenticeship or start at the bottom and work your way up". A degree is usually the best way, although if you are unsure on what you want to study or why, then you're best to wait a while and try something different first, rather than start a degree you don't like.

On another point I personally don't understand this mentality of people not wanting to work with somebody who has previously been a senior manager with the Big 4 or something. If I was to have a junior that would be doing a relatively low level position and was interviewing and saw a load of students with limited experience or an ex Big 4 manager then he would be top of my list...when offering the job I would say, look this is what the job is, here's what the pay is, I know this is a step down for you but this is all we can offer at the moment, but come in to my team and see what we do and you can give me your views on how we do things and how we could do them better, we'll make the processes better and then you can go off and get promoted off the back of that. It would be like getting free consultancy all the time.

I suppose if the manager just wants to doss around and is afraid of having someone that will realise he's not up to the job then yes thats why you don't want somebody experienced.
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WokSz
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As someone who was a mature student at University albeit 25 when I started it, I really do recommend you go back and get a degree. Professional things aside, the academic nature of University is spectacular and if you're doing something you enjoy, I don't see it as a loss.
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jr123
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(Original post by MagicNMedicine)
On another point I personally don't understand this mentality of people not wanting to work with somebody who has previously been a senior manager with the Big 4 or something. If I was to have a junior that would be doing a relatively low level position and was interviewing and saw a load of students with limited experience or an ex Big 4 manager then he would be top of my list...when offering the job I would say, look this is what the job is, here's what the pay is, I know this is a step down for you but this is all we can offer at the moment, but come in to my team and see what we do and you can give me your views on how we do things and how we could do them better, we'll make the processes better and then you can go off and get promoted off the back of that. It would be like getting free consultancy all the time.

I suppose if the manager just wants to doss around and is afraid of having someone that will realise he's not up to the job then yes thats why you don't want somebody experienced.
I agree with your sentiment and I don't understand why everything has to be boiled down to a pissing contest. If the CFO of GE had applied to work as a CSA for me at PwC, then I'd hire that individual. I wouldn't feel intimidated since they were the one who applied and their motives are irrelevant to me. I have found there is serious suspicion around why someone wants to take a pay cut and have had the spiel from HR about why they don't want overqualified individuals ranging from upsetting the other juniors in the race for promotion to the other end of the argument about junior managers not wanting to manage previously higher paid individuals.
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snakesnake
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At least in KPMG all the school leavers also get a degree so if you're going to go for a school leaver program, go for one that leaves you with a BSc at the end of it.

Its simply a standard requirement for so so many jobs in finance, even if the actual content of the degree itself is irrelevant. If you want to work in finance, just go and get a degree. Really not much reason not to in my opinion.
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jr123
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(Original post by WokSz)
As someone who was a mature student at University albeit 25 when I started it, I really do recommend you go back and get a degree. Professional things aside, the academic nature of University is spectacular and if you're doing something you enjoy, I don't see it as a loss.
Thanks for the people advising me to try Uni. I hadn't actually considered it and was more trying to give food for thought to the school leavers. When we hire them we're required to stick very much to the 'brochure' headlines during interviews and as a people manager it's difficult to see them struggle with the monotony later in their careers.

Regarding University, I lacked the maturity to know what I wanted to do from the age of 16-18 (I am stunned to this day with young'uns who have their career trajectory planned at this age), but I have a better idea now. I think I'd also enjoy the work for the work's sake, something I wouldn't have before.
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jr123
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(Original post by snakesnake)
At least in KPMG all the school leavers also get a degree so if you're going to go for a school leaver program, go for one that leaves you with a BSc at the end of it.

Its simply a standard requirement for so so many jobs in finance, even if the actual content of the degree itself is irrelevant. If you want to work in finance, just go and get a degree. Really not much reason not to in my opinion.

I didn't know this was the case at KPMG - an excellent idea.

There is a very cynical side to the school leaver programme, which isn't the only side to look at it, but it's there. Previously the firm were having to hire grads that weren't necessarily of the calibre to do complex tax particularly well, especially on the compliance side. Those more appropriate individuals tended to join law firms or what have you since compliance is very repetitive and low down on their preferences. Anyway, the payroll ended up bloated with senior associate 2s - i.e. qualified grads on 45k that were nothing special (3 rated individuals). They would also often start on around 28k. Some genius realised that there was little to no quality gap in recruiting school leavers, particularly to compliance where the appeal factor was below. These leavers would start on 18k and their progression to SA2 could be slowed to 5 years. The payroll savings after Employers NI too were very significant. Tax partners earn a little less than the others because their appropriation pot is smaller due to the tighter margins (most hours go unbilled and work is proposed as a package fee). Removing almost £250,000 per intake per year stretched over more years for compliance led to much improved profits per partner.
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snakesnake
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(Original post by jr123)
I didn't know this was the case at KPMG - an excellent idea.

There is a very cynical side to the school leaver programme, which isn't the only side to look at it, but it's there. Previously the firm were having to hire grads that weren't necessarily of the calibre to do complex tax particularly well, especially on the compliance side. Those more appropriate individuals tended to join law firms or what have you since compliance is very repetitive and low down on their preferences. Anyway, the payroll ended up bloated with senior associate 2s - i.e. qualified grads on 45k that were nothing special (3 rated individuals). They would also often start on around 28k. Some genius realised that there was little to no quality gap in recruiting school leavers, particularly to compliance where the appeal factor was below. These leavers would start on 18k and their progression to SA2 could be slowed to 5 years. The payroll savings after Employers NI too were very significant. Tax partners earn a little less than the others because their appropriation pot is smaller due to the tighter margins (most hours go unbilled and work is proposed as a package fee). Removing almost £250,000 per intake per year stretched over more years for compliance led to much improved profits per partner.
With a non degree earning school leaver the saving in staff costs relative to a grad can indeed be around 30-40%.

However when you take into account the cost of university fees plus the uni accommodation the firm provides for school leavers, I don't see the cost saving being as significant and if anything, a school leaver might even be more expensive than a first or second year grad.

The place where I can see starting to pay off is that once you get to school leavers in their 4th-6th year (i.e before they qualify and get a big salary boost) you'll have very experienced staff doing work at a significant discount to a grad who'd either leave or be paid way more.
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Classical Liberal
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I don't think your situation would be massively different if you had a degree and then got senior manager in tax. Very few degrees offer any meaningful technical skills - and even if they did you would have lost them by the time you get to senior manager. The main value of a degree is that it shows that you will turn up to things and get on with it, without your parents or teachers forcing you to.

It is easy to see why you won't be able to a get entry level positions - entry level positions are **** boring and don't pay much. If you entered as, say, a junior consultant you would likely reach a point where you think, screw this, I could earn 3 times as much as this and not be treated like ****. There is also the issue that when hiring people, senior people are looking for junior people to replace them, so that these senior people can move on to better things. The last thing these senior people want is for a highly qualified junior person competing for their next promotion.

A classic move for somebody like you is to get onto an MBA program. This is a signal to potential employers that you are genuinely committed to a change, rather than just getting sick of tax or being pushed out. It also gives you the opportunity to network with potential employers.
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jr123
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(Original post by snakesnake)
With a non degree earning school leaver the saving in staff costs relative to a grad can indeed be around 30-40%.

However when you take into account the cost of university fees plus the uni accommodation the firm provides for school leavers, I don't see the cost saving being as significant and if anything, a school leaver might even be more expensive than a first or second year grad.

The place where I can see starting to pay off is that once you get to school leavers in their 4th-6th year (i.e before they qualify and get a big salary boost) you'll have very experienced staff doing work at a significant discount to a grad who'd either leave or be paid way more.
For context I was speaking purely from the POV of PwC - not KPMG. I can't comment on them or their investment into school leavers. It does sound like a more significant investment on their behalf. In PwC's case we ended up with intakes of supposed school leavers (over 70% of which had degrees anyway) on 10k less a year each and also without the guaranteed competitive pay rises the grads used to get. It was a benefit of the credit crunch - grads looking for any way in especially in 2008 and beyond. The turnover was quite high, but nobody really cared because it was so easy to get replacements year on year and it was necessary to stall the endless legions of expensive Senior Associates they had ended up with. Most things are cyclical so I imagine they'll go back to a grad focussed scheme in the next few years, especially if the Service recovery continues to be this strong.
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jr123
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(Original post by Classical Liberal)
A classic move for somebody like you is to get onto an MBA program. This is a signal to potential employers that you are genuinely committed to a change, rather than just getting sick of tax or being pushed out. It also gives you the opportunity to network with potential employers.
I appreciate the advice - I had lunch with a recruiter only last week claiming that Goldmans were looking for diverse MBA holders so you may have something.

Despite my post I'm not overly concerned about my own position. I'm just happy to be moving on regardless. Anyone who has worked in any kind of seniority at a tax specialism will recognise how soul destroying it is to feed crap to juniors while listening to your peers literally crying in to their pints about how they can't do the job any more. PwC has a culture of telling almost everybody they're doing a good job... while keeping tabs of who really is and isn't. This means you have many people told they're good who never get promoted because there's actually a spreadsheet saying they're lazy, unproductive and devoid of any charisma. The recent phenomenon of the 'kind' employer is a farce... the crap that gets slung is simply done clandestinely now and it's the employees who suffer because they live in utter confusion about their position and job security at the firm.
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Helloworld_95
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I wonder if you could go about doing a masters given your experience and have that count as your degree
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Kutie Karen
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The KPMG school leavers sounds like a really good idea but the thought of being tied down for 6 years is so daunting.

I also hear that they really work the school leavers extremely hard and they end up taking alot of the training/reading/studying ends up being done at the end of a very long and hard day or weekends. Some are so exhausted and so has an impact on their exams with all the cramming in that is required. I am not sure I can sacrifice so much of my life to this if especially at the end of the day it is so boring anyway. Reading this thread has made me rethink and if anyone can throw anymore light or their experience on this then it really would help .

By the way this is a really good thread with such honesty which helps people hear first hand what life is like in the real world of work.
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monk_keys
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(Original post by jr123)
I appreciate the advice - I had lunch with a recruiter only last week claiming that Goldmans were looking for diverse MBA holders so you may have something.

Despite my post I'm not overly concerned about my own position. I'm just happy to be moving on regardless. Anyone who has worked in any kind of seniority at a tax specialism will recognise how soul destroying it is to feed crap to juniors while listening to your peers literally crying in to their pints about how they can't do the job any more. PwC has a culture of telling almost everybody they're doing a good job... while keeping tabs of who really is and isn't. This means you have many people told they're good who never get promoted because there's actually a spreadsheet saying they're lazy, unproductive and devoid of any charisma. The recent phenomenon of the 'kind' employer is a farce... the crap that gets slung is simply done clandestinely now and it's the employees who suffer because they live in utter confusion about their position and job security at the firm.
I find sometimes managers would rather just give someone a 3, but then never book them again, rather than actually point out that they have development issues.
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Kutie Karen
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(Original post by monk_keys)
I find sometimes managers would rather just give someone a 3, but then never book them again, rather than actually point out that they have development issues.

How does that work? Do they book staff to work on specific projects ? What is this marking system about?
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M1011
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I have to agree with the earlier poster, I don't think the degree would make all that much difference to your situation.

Your issue is you've spent nine years becoming very specialised in something and now decided you don't want to do it - so you're devaluing your own skills as a result (at least short term). To be clear, I'm not saying it's a bad decision, might as well do a job you enjoy! However I don't think a tax manager with 9 years experience + a degree who decides he suddenly wants nothing to do with Tax is going to find the transition easy either.


(Original post by Kutie Karen)
How does that work? Do they book staff to work on specific projects ? What is this marking system about?
Think of it like a feedback rating. Managers book their juniors on to jobs (scheduling), so if they don't like working with someone they will try to replace them with somebody else.
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AW1983
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(Original post by jr123)
My point is that if you are doing tax or whichever line of service from a school leaver position you need to make sure it's pretty much what you want to do with the bulk of your life. Tax is very very incestuous for lack of a better word. It is extremely and I mean extremely rare to hear of anyone leaving tax except for another tax role after the senior associate level. Some people disappear for a few years here and there, but you almost always hear of them eventually being re-hired in the same role, working in industry as a tax contact or going to another Big 4. Once you are tarred with that brush then you're stuck with it for good or ill. If you love tax or whatever line of service you're applying to then you're laughing. Otherwise please be very, VERY certain in your goals and if you're not, I'd seriously consider getting a degree as a backup.
Your lack of a degree has nothing to do with your being pigeon holed and everything to do with spending 9 years in tax. People with degrees are just as pigeon holed as you are for the same reason. The wider truth is that very very few people in the world successfully change from one profession to another because most people try to change gradually rather than with a big bang. Inevitably they get pulled back.

Your lack of a degree is trifling. If you have a professional qualification, you can probably find several degrees that will give you enough exemptions to finish a degree part time in 18 months, if you really want one. Regardless, if you want to change careers, you should expect to have to do some retraining.
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ldsbabe
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Such a good insight, thanks!
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Tokyoround
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I would have thought this was common sense?
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