As a careers adviser for many years, I’ve learned enormously from students I’ve advised. The way their careers unfold often inspires me and shows me what’s possible in an ever-changing careers landscape.
As an inspirational case study, Holly-Ann from the class of 2019 at one of the schools I partner with is up there with the best of them. She and I had several careers meetings during Years 12 and 13 and her clear aim was to take up an apprenticeship rather than go to uni.
Holly-Ann took A Levels in Maths, English Literature and Business Studies and had a determined and competitive streak that stood out. Ultimately, this paid off for her in a big way when she was offered an apprenticeship with one of the Big Four professional services firms, but she declined it in favour of global commodity trader Trafigura’s apprenticeship that she had discovered from her own research. As she told me back then, she had found her dream job. And after successfully negotiating a final round of interviews at the company’s assessment centre in Geneva, she started on their apprenticeship programme in Singapore.
Thanks to the wonders of Zoom, I caught up with Holly-Ann last month and she gave me a fascinating insight into the incredible journey she’s been on during the 21 months since she left school. The following summary is based on my recent conversation with Holly-Ann and subsequently with Trafigura’s Singapore-based Global Talent Acquisition Manager, Olivia Higgins.
Trafigura and the apprenticeship programme
As one of the world’s largest independent commodity trading houses, Trafigura sources, stores, transports and delivers a range of raw materials (including oil and refined products and metals and minerals) to clients around the world. This involves a complex process that relies on co-operation and communication between various highly skilled teams, each of whom are trusted to make the right decisions at the right times. The apprenticeship programme recruits to two centres, Geneva and Singapore. Although Geneva is in non-EU Switzerland, applicants for Geneva must either have the right to work in Switzerland or hold an EU passport, which may now pose a problem for many potential UK applicants post-Brexit.
The programme certainly isn’t an easy ride either and the numbers recruited annually onto the scheme are limited. The programme is purposefully kept small in order to ensure apprentices are given very real responsibility alongside thorough on-the-job training and support. Holly-Ann was one of five who started at the same time, of whom three were fresh out of sixth form and two in their twenties. Nonetheless, in terms of career progression and experience it would be hard to find anything that matches it.
To summarise the programme itself, you spend your first year in one of four business functions: Deals Desk; Operations; Trade Finance; and Business Analysis. On successful completion, you will then be fast tracked into the company’s two-year graduate programme, with a salary and benefits to match, and you rotate around three other functions in eight-month blocks (temporarily extended to twelve months because of COVID-19). Having started in Singapore, Holly-Ann herself is now based in Geneva and, at the age of just 20, is working on the Deals Desk alongside experienced traders and top-calibre graduates from around the world.
As Trafigura’s own brochure says, their apprentices won’t be shadowing or making the tea. Instead, they’re straight in at the deep end with lots of personal autonomy. The learning curve is steep, stress levels can be high and Holly-Ann herself gave me a vivid insight into the buzz on the trading floor. It’s certainly high energy!
There’s no degree-level study involved either and you need to be highly resilient and proactive in managing your own development. To compensate however, Holly-Ann’s take on it is that anyone with five years’ experience at Trafigura will be incredibly marketable. As she put it, “if you can cope with this, you can cope with anything”.
Having been instrumental in introducing the apprenticeship programme alongside her responsibility for managing the graduate scheme, Talent Acquisition Manager Olivia is passionate about diversifying the junior intake globally:
“Our first graduate intake was back in 2009 and then we were looking for a particular mould of person, predominantly from a finance background from some of the top universities globally. However, now apprentices like Holly-Ann are a highly regarded source of future talent in the company and the heads of trading desks are incredibly supportive of the programme and the people that come through it – and they’re keen to hire more.”
In this respect, it’s not a lot different to the messages I’m picking up from some of the big UK graduate employers about diversification.
2021 and 2022 recruitment
As regards the current situation, there’s an apprenticeship recruitment going on right now, with a closing date of 4th July 2021. So, if you’re reading this blog shortly after publication, there’s still time for you or any of your Year 13 students to apply. Equally, students in Year 12 might like to look out for the 2022 application cycle, which is likely to open any time from next March onwards.
And what does Trafigura expect from potential applicants? Olivia put it this way:
“We’re looking for driven, enthusiastic people with good numerical skills, who want to learn and who are excited about working in an exciting and challenging sector. “
I suggested to Olivia that perhaps they also need to be people who are keen to work in a competitive as well as fast-paced environment, to which her measured response was:
“Certainly that’s true – everyone here is motivated and good at what they do, but also genuinely nice people who are always willing to help each other, particularly those at the start of their careers”.
In a nutshell, Olivia says that apprentices can be “anyone from any background who wants to be in this industry, is interested in the way that the world interacts globally and is motivated to learn’.
And as Holly-Ann had explained to me:
”The apprentices bypass getting a degree, so it’s very much for the kind of person who wants to learn the practice, not the theory.”
Minimum entry requirements and expectations
- A-level BBB; IB 34; US GPA 3.5; French Bacc 14
- Fluency in English required
- Fluency in an additional language very advantageous
- Globally mobile
- Has researched the industry and understands something about commodities trading and the differences between physical and paper trading
- Happy to work in high pressure environments and in big teams
- Comfortable with big numbers, complex concepts and problem-solving
- A fast learner who will take ownership of their own projects and responsibility for their own mistakes
- Likes looking at things on a massive scale as well as understanding the finer details
- Has a strong personality but also listens to others, communicates effectively and will take care of the people they work with
- Verbal/numerical test
- Telephone interview
- Assessment centre (presentation, trading simulation games, networking event)
Many thanks to Holly-Ann and Olivia for their fascinating insights.
© Alan Bullock, 21/6/2021