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“My name is Natalie Woolard and I work for HMRC in the Fraud Investigation Service team (“FIS”). I completed my apprenticeship studying for a level 4 Tax Professional qualification, specialising in VAT, in 2022. I was given this opportunity as part of a new role when I transferred to FIS. I was grateful to be able to get a recognised qualification for the on the job learning I was about to undertake. Before this role, I was working in customer service within HMRC in the personal tax area of Pensions. This work honed my procedural working skills and supported my development in customer service, but I quickly found I wanted more scope to make decisions and eventually applied for positions in the Customer Compliance Group. The customer service role is also involved in studying as part of an apprenticeship, due to the fact that I joined as part of the Fast track scheme. This meant I already knew how rewarding this learning opportunity could be and so I jumped at the chance to take on a second apprenticeship in a matter of a few years!
A key part of why I enjoyed my apprenticeships is that as a person with dyslexia, who didn’t flourish in an academic environment such as University or Sixth Form, the apprenticeship scheme gave me an opportunity to improve and grow my skills and secure higher qualifications within an environment that supported me and my extra needs. The hands-on method of learning clearly benefited me, and I was able to qualify with a distinction grade, despite my previous issues with formal academic learning.
Throughout the apprenticeship scheme, I received a variety of support including mentors, online resources, and group sessions to support one another through the course.
While the support was brilliant, the apprenticeship scheme is still a comprehensive routeway with milestones and targets which often felt daunting. While I felt the pressure at certain points, I never felt as though it was too much, as instead it offered a focus and direction for my development, which can sometimes be difficult to define by yourself. I really enjoyed the extra level of commitment required and it helped me constantly feel like I was moving my career forward at pace with a clear objective in mind.
Initially, I was in a team that had been set up in anticipation of the departure from the European Union. At the time, the arrangements between the EU and UK were still undecided and resource was stepped up to prepare for a variety of scenarios. This meant that often our work was supporting local teams with extra resource, or taking on smaller projects to ensure that we would still be able to adapt and deliver at pace, if and when it was needed under our tax regime. Ultimately, as the negotiations reached their conclusion, we were stood down from EU exit areas of working and began working on our tactical priorities. This was a step change in our duties, and we moved our focus to these new challenges.
My work involved a lot of data analysis and correspondence with taxpayers and agents, many of whom were providing challenges by not complying with requests and delaying my investigations with partial or unclear answers to questions. This could often present unique challenges with my dyslexia. I learnt from my mistakes and adapted my writing style, to ensure a more effective questioning technique. I have had large complex tax cases and these have had a huge impact on my development. I found it best to take each task at a time, prioritising where necessary and seeking support from local colleagues when needed.
The pandemic also offered a new set of challenges to both our work and completion of the apprenticeship scheme. It became quite daunting; the idea of continuing in lockdowns without the benefit of my team sitting nearby. We were given the opportunity to withdraw from the programme due to the impact of the pandemic upon learning and general pressures of COVID ways of working. While the chance to have one less thing to worry about was very tempting, I carefully considered the benefits of my apprenticeship and decided to press on. The advantages of a defined, supported routeway with a qualification at the end were so significant that even COVID wasn’t going to stop me!
Leveraging the skills I learnt, I began taking on more and more responsibilities to practice what I had learnt. With the confidence I gained, I began leading projects including co-ordinated UK wide unannounced visits and eventually took charge of my own operation tackling, fraud in research and development. Within my team, I also supported new colleagues who joined, passing on the skills I had picked up and offering insights into best practice that I had learnt through the apprenticeship.
I was offered the chance to support a DWP and HMRC collaboration called “Movement to Work” which aimed to help support those in long-term unemployment by demonstrating different careers and opportunities. I helped to plan, coordinate, and lead sessions on multiple topics such as Apprenticeships, Learning within HMRC and Fraud investigation throughout the four weeks that we hosted candidates. The opportunity required a lot of collaboration with stakeholders from across HMRC. I helped to organise the sessions and the relevant resources that would be required for demonstrations and presentations. I also took the opportunity to support a candidate who was dyslexic and identified support resources that were available on the HMRC supplied device. It was a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate my new knowledge and leadership capabilities.
As well as completing the course and earning my qualification, the work I was exposed to earned me a nomination for the North East Apprentice of the Year 2022 Award, which I was fortunate enough to win. Not long after this, I also won the award for FIS Apprentice of the Year 2023, adding another trophy to my dining room shelf (where they both remain!). The nominations for both awards were built upon the work that I had been exposed to through the apprenticeship scheme, including opportunities that I had taken on in order to augment my own learning. I had no idea at the time that they would expand and grow in the way they did, giving me the opportunity to build up into leadership positions with specialised knowledge. If not for the apprenticeship programme setting me up and focusing me on what I needed to learn next, I might have let these opportunities pass me by. To be recognised at this level is extremely rewarding and I am very proud of how far I have come.
With the work experience I had gained and the knowledge that I had accumulated through the apprenticeship programme I soon found myself seeking out new challenges. In the latter half of 2023 I began applying for posts which would let me expand my compliance skills in the fraud sector. In October 2023, I was successful in securing an SO promotion into a technical team in FIS (Civil). While new into this team I am already utilising the skills I acquired on the apprenticeship programme, I have whole new areas of tax to learn now, and I know exactly how I’m going to tackle the journey ahead!
Throughout my time on the apprenticeship scheme, I learned a significant amount about tax compliance and supporting HMRC’s objectives. Through the support of the programme, my manager, and mentors I have grappled with complex areas of work and come out of this experience stronger each time. My most significant takeaway, however, is my awareness of the benefits of perseverance. Despite the challenges and the pressures of working and learning with dyslexia, the pandemic, and balancing work and study I was able to keep taking steps forward towards my goals. Slowly but surely, I pushed myself through everything that was thrown at me and on the other side of it I can say that it was all worth it. I would highly recommend the apprenticeship scheme to anyone looking for their next challenge – you never know what you might get out of it!”
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Hear from other current and former Civil Service apprentices who have written blogs for National Apprenticeship Week 2024.