How do I get into a career in business?

How do I get into business?
Discover what qualifications and experience you need to get your first job in HR, sales, marketing, PR or management consulting, whether you want to start work at 18 or as a graduate.

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HR (human resources) Sales Marketing PR (public relations) Management consulting

Many people working in business jobs have a degree, but it’s possible to get in without one.

If you’re not sure which area of business you want to work in, some training programmes aimed at non-graduates offer the opportunity to try out different jobs in different functions. Marketing, HR and sales are often options. PR and management consulting don’t tend to be. For most other opportunities you need to know which type of business job you want before you apply.

Business apprenticeships and sponsored degrees – an option at 18

Higher apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships and sponsored degrees involve working as a paid employee while studying part-time for a qualification, with your course fees paid by your employer. As the name suggests, on a degree apprenticeship or sponsored degree programme this will be a university degree; qualifications offered on higher apprenticeships vary. There are also some similar opportunities with different names, eg Schroders’ ‘traineeship programme’. Programmes tend to last between one and four years.

Some apprenticeship or sponsored degree programmes focus on just one business function (eg HR). Others give you experience working across different departments, such as HR, sales, marketing, IT or finance – degree apprenticeships and sponsored degree programmes, in particular, are often structured in this way.

To get onto a business degree apprenticeship, sponsored degree or higher apprenticeship you typically need a minimum of five GCSEs at grade A*–C, including maths and English, as well as two or three A levels (or equivalent). Some set minimum grades or UCAS points, typically between 200 and 300.

Employers offering programmes that allow you to try out different areas include Nestlé's chartered manager degree apprentice programme and Morrisons' degree apprenticeships.

Getting into careers in human resources (HR)

Having a degree can be an advantage when getting into HR, but it is not essential.

HR apprenticeships and sponsored degrees

If you want to start your career in HR at 18 you could take a sponsored degree, degree apprenticeship or higher apprenticeship – see above. HR-specific school leaver programmes include BT's higher HR apprentice programme (based in South Shields, near Newcastle) and Transport for London's higher apprenticeship in human resource (HR) management.

As an alternative, you may be able to find an entry-level HR job that isn’t part of a formal programme and work your way up. Some entry-level positions will take school leavers without having completed the above programmes, though you’ll need to get some office administration experience first. Relevant jobs include HR asssistant and HR admin assistant. However, other companies tend to favour graduates over school leavers for these entry-level vacancies.

HR graduate schemes and other human resources job options with a degree

A number of HR graduate schemes are open to those who have a degree in any subject, though others ask for a relevant degree (eg business studies or psychology). In many cases you’ll need a 2.1 degree (the second highest grade) though some employers will accept a 2.2 (the third highest grade).

Any experience gained while at university (eg a placement year or work experience) will put you ahead of other candidates. Getting a degree from a well-respected university will also work in your favour.

Some organisations don’t run formal graduate schemes but do have entry-level HR jobs that graduates can apply for.

Further professional training in HR

For both graduate and school leaver routes into HR, in order to progress up the career and salary ladders you must gain Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) qualifications once you are in the workplace.

Getting into careers in sales

It is not essential to have a degree but there are more options available to those who do. If you’d like to work in pharmaceutical or IT sales, it is sometimes necessary to have a degree.

How to get a sales job without a degree

Some school leaver programmes such as sponsored degrees, degree apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships offer the opportunity to work in a sales role. See above for more details. For example, Bentley offers an apprenticeship in sales and marketing.

There are also many entry-level and trainee roles available in sales, which tend to be advertised on an ad-hoc basis. It is likely you will start out as a trainee sales consultant or adviser, before becoming an executive or being given more responsibility. Most employers will ask for the following:

  • previous sales experience, or proof of an ability to sell and meet targets; this could include anything from a part-time job as a sales assistant to helping out with a fundraising event at school
  • strong communication skills: over the phone, in email and in person
  • excellent IT skills, preferably with past experience using Excel
  • numerical skills
  • excellent interpersonal skills
  • a full UK driving licence
  • an ability to understand customers’ needs and develop successful relationships.

Even if you don’t have experience in customer service, you can demonstrate your ability to understand customers’ needs and develop relationships through experience you’ve had as part of a team, or through other events. For instance, if you volunteered to help show parents around at your school’s open day, you will have used these skills when answering parents’ questions and showing them specific aspects of the school they are interested in.

Most entry-level sales jobs that are not targeted at graduates tend to be in media sales or recruitment (an area overlooked by many, where you are selling candidates and their skills to employers). IT and telecoms companies employ a huge number of sales staff, but entry-level roles in these companies tend to be in telesales and won’t offer much opportunity for promotion within the company.

Graduate sales jobs

There are plenty of graduate sales jobs, and in most cases it doesn't matter what subject you've studied at university. IT companies may specify or prefer graduates with a degree in business or IT, and pharmaceutical companies often need graduates from a natural sciences, biomed, chemistry or life sciences background.

If you have not studied a business or economics related degree at university it is important for you to prove to employers that you are capable of making sales, and that you have strong customer service and interpersonal skills as most roles are client-facing. You will also need to provide good reasons for applying, and show you have commercial awareness, numeracy skills, and a genuine interest in pursuing a career in sales.

To work in IT, engineering or electronics sales as a graduate, you may choose to do a ‘business’ or ‘commercial’ graduate scheme, or the company may require you to complete a ‘technical’ graduate scheme as product-specific knowledge and technical skills are often necessary in order to later work in a permanent sales role.

Further professional training in sales

It is possible to gain professional qualifications in sales through the Institute of Sales Management (ISM). The Chartered Institute of Marketing also offers professional qualifications. None of these are essential for getting a job in sales, but could help with career progression.

Getting into marketing careers

Most people in marketing have a degree but it’s not necessary.

Marketing apprenticeships

Formal training programmes such as sponsored degrees, degree apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships are one option for starting your marketing career at 18. There’s more information on these above. You could learn about marketing as one of a number of business areas on degree apprenticeships such as those run by Nestlé or Morrisons', or the BBC's business management higher apprenticeship. Alternatively, employers such as Sky run apprenticeships that focus purely on marketing.

You can also get an entry level marketing job without a degree. Unlike on an apprenticeship programme, the focus will be more on doing one specific job that needs to be done. To get hired, you’re likely to need the following:

  • experience in a business setting (eg having already had an admin job)
  • a qualification or two from the Chartered Institution of Marketing (CIM) – see below for more detail
  • good written English
  • the ability to use Excel
  • initiative
  • awareness of the business world.

The CIM offers a range of courses, including ones aimed at beginners who don’t have any experience of marketing. It’s possible to study online and/or at evenings or weekends, so you can fit in an introductory course alongside a full-time job. So if you want to start a career in marketing after your A levels you might choose to combine one of these courses with an admin job or similar at a local business while starting your search for your first marketing job. However, you’re likely to have to pay for your course yourself.

The most typical entry-level marketing job is marketing assistant. However, depending on the qualifications you take and how impressive you are as a candidate you might be able to start your career in marketing at the next job level up – marketing executive.

Entry level jobs in market research tend to be aimed at graduates. However, you might be able to find a job in a support role at a market research company (eg doing admin or interviewing participants) and work your way up.

Marketing graduate schemes and other graduate marketing jobs

If you want to go to university before starting work you can either study a related subject (eg marketing or business studies) or something unrelated (basically, any subject you fancy). If you study a subject that isn’t connected to business you will need to get some sort of relevant experience (eg a marketing internship, work experience or a relevant part time job) to help prove your interest in marketing to employers.

Joe Leverson, a digital marketing manager, comments: ‘I recommend choosing a degree that has an element of business or creativity. A creative degree could be an arts-based subject or something involving writing or design.’ If you want to work in market research, good degree choices include psychology, social science subjects or those involving lots of maths.

You can get into marketing with a degree from any university. However, if you want to start with a big-name company, a degree from a top university may help you to impress.

Further professional training in marketing

If you wish to take further qualifications as your career develops you can take higher-level CIM training but it’s not necessary to do so.

Getting into PR careers

You can enter the PR sector with or without a degree, but you will need to show skills such as strong written and verbal communication as well as a real interest in the profession. Occasionally employers ask for an A level in English language or literature, and getting experience in your own time is very important.

How to get a PR job without a degree

There are some entry-level PR jobs that don't require a degree, or you can take a PR apprenticeship. For example, the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) has developed a PR apprenticeship scheme that employers can implement. It allows apprentices to learn and study in a real PR consultancy or in-house team while earning a wage. PR apprenticeships can be supported by other training providers too, such as colleges.

A number of PR employers offer higher apprenticeships or other jobs for which you will require A levels; English A level is occasionally asked for but employers don't typically specify subjects. For example, a Manchester-based PR agency previously advertised a vacancy for an apprentice that required a ‘minimum of three A levels’ as well as A*–C in GCSE maths and English.

The higher apprenticeship in public relations is a level four BTEC qualification and takes about 15 months to complete. However, there is no obligation for companies to employ the apprentice after completing the scheme. Some employers who have offered the programme include Parker Hobart (now part of Wild Card), Grayling and Cirkle.

PR employers do not expect prospective apprentices to have a lengthy list of PR work experience, but school leavers need to show an interest in the profession. For example, you could show your interest in current affairs by writing a blog, or that you are confident using social media by posting videos on a YouTube channel.

School leavers are unlikely to find apprenticeships or entry-level PR jobs with an annual recruitment cycle and a start date that’s designed to fit with you leaving school, as vacancies are usually advertised when roles are required.

Public relations graduate schemes and other PR graduate jobs

Public relations employers who ask for a degree often require a 2.1, which is the second highest grade you can get at university. In terms of the degree subject you need to get a PR job:

  • some employers don’t mind what subject your degree is in
  • some employers specifically ask for public relations or marketing degrees
  • some employers require or prefer a relevant degree subject but consider a wider range – for example, communications, journalism, media and English, as well as PR and marketing
  • public relations employers who specialise in healthcare communications (a big area) often require or prefer graduates with relevant degrees such as life sciences
  • employers who specialise in other areas of science or technology may prefer a subject that relates to their work
  • an economics or finance degree could be an advantage if you want to work in financial PR.

No matter what degree you study, your extracurricular activities need to prove to employers that you have got the right skills and want to work in PR. Work experience and internships in PR or media-related organisations as well as part-time jobs will help prove your interest. For example, your weekend job at a shop can show you like to interact with customers, which you can relate to wanting to work with clients in PR. Writing skills are very important; getting involved in student media while you’re at university is a good way to develop these.

Further professional training in PR

Whether you are a non-graduate or graduate, you will usually need to take further qualifications once you have started work to advance your PR career. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) is a professional body that offers industry-recognised PR qualifications.

Management consulting

There are a handful of opportunities to get into management consulting after your A levels or Highers, though most vacancies are for graduates.

Getting into management consulting without a degree

Some firms, often referred to as professional services firms, offer a range of services to clients, such as accountancy, tax and consulting; others specialise in consulting services. At the time of writing, none of the latter offer opportunities for school leavers.

Professional services firms PwC and Deloitte offer school leaver programmes in consulting. For PwC you’ll need at least 280 UCAS points from up to three A levels (excluding general studies); Deloitte’s BrightStart programme requires you to be on track to receive 300 UCAS points. Both firms look for an interest in business and finance from candidates.

KPMG includes an opportunity to experience consulting in its school leaver option called 360°, which is designed to give school leavers a taste of several different divisions.

Getting into management consulting with a degree

The consultancy profession is open to graduates from any degree discipline. A 2.1 is the minimum grade required by all employers – in fact, as so much emphasis is put upon intellectual ability it is worth studying a subject you believe you can get top grades in at the most prestigious university you can get into. Having commercial awareness (an understanding of how a business works), communication, teamwork and analytical skills will give you an edge in applications and assessments.

Further professional training

No professional qualifications are required to become a management consultant, but once you have three years’ consulting experience you are eligible to apply for the CMC qualification offered by the Institute of Consulting.

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