Features
5 Feb 2015 10:04am

Career opportunities for accountants

Jobseekers may be in abundance in accountancy, but that doesn’t mean finding the perfect employee is easy. Sandra Haurant speaks to specialist recruiters about the challenge of wooing the best candidates

Recruiting the right person for a job sounds easy enough. Market the vacancy in the right places, harvest CVs from a variety of suitable candidates, interview, then sign on the dotted line…

Unfortunately though, as ACA Charlie Jones found out, recruiting can be hit or miss. Jones qualified at PwC before going to work in industry, where his job involved recruiting staff, often through different recruitment agencies. He found external recruitment companies were all too often approaching the issue as a numbers game – bombarding firms with CVs without really honing down the choice to the right candidates.

While Jones was discovering the shortcomings in recruitment approaches, his brother Joe was working as a senior recruitment consultant; their father, Mike, was also a chartered accountant. They had all experienced frustration with recruitment agencies. “We decided that most were sending over as many CVs as possible to see if any stuck. Too many [third parties] provide the best person they have, and not the best person there is,” says Jones.

So they decided to set up their own consultancy, Orleans House, to offer a better way to fill accountancy roles. “We thought we could do it differently; we understand the qualifications and the skills needed, as well as the personal fit. We have chartered accountant input on everything,” he says. The company compiles rigorous long-lists before coming up with a definitive shortlist, having taken the time to match people’s soft skills and technical qualifications with companies and their culture, as well as tracking candidate availability and monitoring activity in various sectors.

Much of the company’s work is at the more senior end of the market, where Jones says it benefits from a long-established network of potential candidates. But the market is hugely competitive – newly qualified accountants find themselves in the fortunate position of being extremely employable. And while jobseekers work hard to ensure their CVs stand out, a competitive market place means firms must make just as much effort if they want to attract the best candidates.

ENTRY LEVEL CHALLENGES

Candidates have more choice than they did before. And with choice, comes bigger challenges for employers to woo the best. Graduate recruitment at Britain’s top employers is set to reach its highest level for more than a decade this year, according to the latest report from research firm High Fliers. Starting salaries are up, too.

Sharon Spice, ICAEW director of Global Student Recruitment, says: “We are expecting big changes to graduate recruitment this year. Employers will need to look beyond offering job roles and secure salaries. Instead, they will need to make themselves known and have something different to offer.

Professional qualifications and development programmes are more important than ever in attracting the best talent in finance

“They might offer other incentives that matter to students like investment in their career progression, good work/life balance, international opportunities and a supportive workplace culture. That is why professional qualifications and development programmes are more important than ever in attracting the best talent in finance.”

The Big Four all announced increases in their intake of graduates last summer and while there are many graduates and school leavers applying for jobs, there are also plenty of employers vying for the best of the bunch.

“It is more competitive now than it’s ever been,” confirms Alex Symon, head of recruitment at KPMG. “The Big Four recruit, in large numbers, in every area, so we have to be on our game,” she says. Meanwhile, London firm Harris & Trotter takes on two graduate trainees a year, explains partner Stephen Haffner. “We don’t really have to advertise our graduate positions at all. Candidates are 99% through word of mouth.

They might have done work experience here, or know people who already work here. And a few come to us through our website.”
Andrew McLaren, partner at Beever and Struthers, advertises on icaewjobs.com, the Institute’s jobs board. And as one of the top 10 accountancy firms in the north-west, there is plenty of interest among graduates. But finding school leavers has been a different matter, says McLaren. “We need candidates to be bright and capable of passing the exams, so we ask for three Bs at A-level. The challenge is finding people with those results who are not going on to university.”

Part of the problem, adds McLaren, is a lack of decent careers advice at school. He regularly speaks at local schools and is frequently told by parents and teachers that they were not aware that pupils could go straight from school into accountancy training.

Indeed, raising awareness about the aptitude required, as well as the skills that will be developed on the job and where a trainee position may lead, plays a large part in successfully recruiting new starters. PwC recruits between 3,000 and 4,000 full-time members of staff each year, including about 1,000 graduates on accountancy training contracts. Richard Irwin, director of student recruitment at PwC, says: “A lot of what we do is about challenging the stereotype. Too many people think it’s about being at your desk with your calculator.

“You will be training to become a qualified chartered accountant, but the kinds of skills required for having a successful career with us are things such as the ability to build great relationships, to look at a business commercially, while also developing great technical skills. We need to really help them understand that a career in accountancy is really a career in business.”

WOOING CANDIDATES

The challenge for PwC – not just with graduates but senior hires too – is to get people to re-evaluate their perceptions, says Irwin. “Those who have not been in the recruitment market for a long time will be thinking of us as an accountancy employer. We have to get them thinking about the power of the brand,” he says. When marketing a job, companies also need to reflect what’s going on in the wider culture of the firm, adds Symon: “Our clients are our candidates, and vice versa. We want to weave the same message into our recruitment marketing so that when you experience KPMG, it’s consistent.” Impressing a candidate as soon as they walk through the door is vital to recruiting the best talent at all levels, says Symon: “The experience the candidate has when they come into the firm for interview has to be second to none, because that is what will differentiate us from our competitors,” she says. “It won’t be salary, it won’t be benefits; as they are similar among the Big Four.”

She likens the experience to that of a consumer. “As a customer I will go to a particular store because of the experience I have. It might be more or less expensive, but that won’t be why I pick it; it will be because I know I am going to get great service. That is what our candidate experience should be like. We have had graduates who have had more than one offer, but their experience here set us apart.”
Diversity is a challenge at every level, adds Symon, from school leavers up to partners. Irwin agrees: “Accountancy, as a career, is one that hasn’t been attracting a high enough proportion of women, for example. We have an aspiration for our firm to be 50% female. As a progressive employer, we think it’s wrong to select staff based on anything other than merit – as well as being illegal, it would be contrary to our philosophy.

“In terms of how we assess people it will always be exclusively on merit, but as long as we are not getting that [50/50] split, we are missing out on the best people,” he says.

According to Symon, it’s important to insist on diverse shortlists from recruitment agencies to ensure that the candidate is the best-qualified, chosen on merit and from a wide variety of backgrounds. “We need to ensure we are working with the right third parties, and that they, within their own businesses, have a structure around diversity. We don’t want to work with suppliers that don’t understand it, and believe in it completely, as we do. Having the right third parties is critical.”

PAINFUL GOODBYES

 

In some cases, whether working with third parties or not, waiting for the right candidates to apply is ineffective. A good recruitment consultant will be able to tap into a network of potential – and that includes head-hunting. This comes with its own set of difficulties. “It’s about really understanding the candidates and knowing whether a role is suitable,” says Jones. “It’s bad news to convince someone to leave a role to go into a new job which turns out not to be right for them. We have to know them well enough to know which roles would suit them. A lot of the best people are in roles, so the question is do they want to move, can we head-hunt them out?”

Head-hunting frequently happens at a senior level, but it is also used widely in recruitment for more junior roles. Many newly qualified chartered accountants are starting to realise they are hot property, with regular calls from head-hunters. “So many companies want to take on newly qualified ACAs,” says Jones. “Companies want to take on people who are early in their careers and who will want to grow with them.”
This may be positive for the hiring firm, but it can make life difficult for the firm the ACA is leaving behind. McLaren at Beever and Struthers explains: “Staff being head-hunted is a big problem. You used to expect that they would stay for two years after qualification, but these days, some go almost as soon as they qualify,” he says.

Faced with a gap, the Beever and Struthers is finding solutions to the problem, such as taking on sandwich-year students to cover the shortfall. But the significant investment made in staff training means it’s painful when a newly qualified staff member takes their skills elsewhere. This harsh reality reinforces the view held by KPMG’s Symon that a firm really needs a strong brand and ethos to appeal to candidates from the start if it can hope to retain them.

Most firms have an idea of the length of time they hope staff will work with them, though ultimately, how long they stay is a personal choice. At PwC the aim is for people to think on a five-year horizon “through to becoming a manager” says Irwin. “It’s critical that we retain our highest performers, but it’s more about how we help individuals achieve their career aims, and if we are progressive about that and help someone find the right opportunity for them, whether that is within the firm or outside it, then the likelihood of them being an advocate of the future or someone that will rejoin us is that much higher.”

To help with this phase of career development, KPMG has set up a special transition office where staff can recieve assistance in moving on. Adds Symon: “We have made an investment in people and we hope that will be rewarded. But the reality is people move on. And we need some degree of turnover; every healthy organisation does.”

But if the candidate is right from the start, the fit should ensure a long-term relationship even beyond direct employment. Symon says: “We consider that people are linked to us for a lifetime. We have a strong alumni network; people do not usually go to main competitors, but they do move into industry, and that benefits us enormously.”

HOW TO SPOT A HIGH CALIBRE APPLICANT

Commercial acumen: In today’s business climate it is essential for candidates to express how they can provide commercial value. This is true for all levels of employees, and may include improving efficiencies, negotiating contracts or sourcing new revenue streams.

Ability to identify weaknesses: Candidates must be self-aware and able to offer some indication of their shortcomings. In so doing, candidates should indicate what steps they’ve taken to overcome their weaknesses.

Measurable, relatable successes: Candidates should have a good understanding of the role they’ve applied for and be prepared to cite measurable successes that relate to the desired job. Doing so will demonstrate their interest in the role and how their qualities would add value to the organisation.

Ability to set goals: Candidates should be excited about the desired role and provide goals they would like to achieve in the position. These should be measurable and relate back to the success of the company or their department, not the individual and their personal career trajectory.

Insightful questions: The best candidates have done their research not only about the company but also about the industry and competitors. Having questions that demonstrate a candidate’s knowledge of the company, the industry or competition will set them apart from the rest.

Phil Sheridan, managing director, Robert Half UK

Sandra Haurant

 

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