By Angela MacDonald

04 Feb 2020

HMRC has embraced an army of apprentices to bring new talent to the organisation as well as refocus longstanding experience to new tasks. Director general of customer services Angela MacDonald explains how.

It’s no secret that HM Revenue and Customs is one of the civil service’s largest departments, bringing together almost 60,000 full-time equivalent staff. What’s likely to be less well known is that almost 10% of our workforce are apprentices, progressing towards officially-recognised qualifications that can range from the equivalent of a GCSE to a masters-degree-level qualification.

Through the official HMRC apprenticeship programme, more than 5,000 learners are in an apprentice role across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, developing specialisms from project delivery to business administration. Typically, these apprenticeships last anywhere between 18 months and two years, but degree-level programmes can last up to four years.

In my current role as director general of customer services I really rely on apprentices to deliver – and I know that other directorates, such as chief digital and information officer’s team, have similar experiences.


Apprentices are a key part of HMRC’s workforce and capability, and we are committed to apprenticeship learning. In fact, the vast majority of new starters into the customer service group over the last few years have been taken on as apprentices.

But our apprentices are not just school-leavers: we have the full array of educational backgrounds and ages in the programme. Someone who is currently an apprentice with us could actually be on their first job or on their fifth career.

This diversity of experience can bring huge benefits to the workforce, and I’ve seen that first-hand.

Through our work we look after every citizen in the UK, and often interact with customers in complex situations who are sometimes vulnerable. Some of our most effective staff are those who have been on the “other side of the fence”, so to speak – whether that’s as a small business owner or as a long-term taxpayer.

Having those life experiences and that empathy can really make a positive difference to how someone can look after customers. The first HMRC Apprenticeship Awards in 2019 saw nominations and truly inspiring stories flood in and was an example of our longstanding tradition of recognition by our peers.

Apprenticeships have also broadened the way that HMRC can recruit. We are changing the experience and qualification criteria that we consider for many roles. We use the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the National Apprenticeship Service, as well as normal channels for recruitment, but our new regional hubs are also playing an important role in securing talented people from all over the UK.

We are establishing centres of excellence via our regional hubs, which allows us access to an active and vibrant recruitment market. Our people can pursue their careers in a large-quality employer outside London, and we are able to look for talent in each of the devolved nations.

Once they finish their time at HMRC, apprentices have many opportunities available to them, whether that’s inside the civil service or in the private sector. We are the first step for many in their civil service career, and we embrace our role in shaping the UK’s future tax professionals. We support individuals to make a difference to society in general, and wherever apprentices’ next destinations may be, they carry with them the HMRC values and the approach to service.

So, what’s next for the programme? I’m clear that this is a work in progress: even though we received a very positive outcome from our first Ofsted Monitoring Review as an employer provider, we recognise that we are at the beginning of our apprenticeship journey.

We have more than 30 apprentice programmes in HMRC, and we are continuously building on this where there is a clear capability need for the individual and for our business, as well as working closely with our apprenticeship providers to improve our programmes, services and apprentice experience.

Why there is no such thing as a typical HMRC apprenticeship

To celebrate National Apprentice Week, HMRC took a random sample of apprentices and asked about their experiences. Names have been changed but their stories have not.

The 54-year-old apprentice: Charlotte is working with the Wealthy and Mid-Sized Compliance team in Scotland. She has worked in the civil service for more than 30 years after starting as a filing clerk. She says: “I must admit, when I was initially told that I would be an apprentice, I laughed and made a quip about being the oldest apprentice in the UK. I did feel a bit apprehensive that I wouldn’t have the learning skills of my younger self and that my retention would not be as good as it had been.”

However, Charlotte found her fears were unfounded because of the mix of blended e-learning, face-to-face courses, mentorship, colleague- and manager- support and practical work her course offers.

Her previous experience also turned out to be an advantage. “I am not afraid to ask when I don’t understand something and I really don’t fear looking ridiculous with daft questions,” she says. “I bring something different to the table.”

The complete career change: Imran is a tax-specialist apprentice based in HMRC’s East Kilbride office. He previously worked as an analyst in the private sector and joined the programme looking for “a complete career change” that was something more related to his university degree. He says the idea of being an apprentice was not off-putting. “For me, it highlighted that the tax programme HMRC was running had a good structure with an opportunity to get a trade-recognised qualification at the end,” he says.

Chance to be earning and learning: Max is an apprentice working for the Capability & Development team at HMRC comms on a programme that combines professional development with work experience. “The GCS Apprenticeship scheme was awarded Public Relations Chartered Association Best Apprenticeship Programme 2019,” he says. “So the chance to learn from an award-winning team seemed like the best place for me to begin my career in the comms industry while still having the opportunity to be in a learning environment for 20% of the time”.

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