How to attract top accountancy and finance talent

Attracting top candidates into accountancy, finance and business is key. Sandra Haurant takes a look at the clear pathways into the profession.

Attracting the best candidates into the world of accountancy and finance is something of a preoccupation for ICAEW. To appeal to the brightest brains out there, it’s important to ensure pathways into the profession are appropriate for a fast-changing world.

And things have changed. “There are much wider access routes now,” says Alison Stiles, head of business development at ICAEW. “For employers, there is an increasing recognition that the more diverse your employee base is, the stronger you are as an organisation, because you are better at identifying different types of risk and approaching problems from lots of different perspectives.”

What’s more, horizons are broadening. Digital training makes it more straightforward than ever to study anywhere, anytime. And it’s not only accountancy firms that prepare their staff for the ACA qualification; there are around 5,000 employers globally who offer the training, including large companies, small businesses, charities, the public sector and more. We take a look at the different paths that lead to a career in the profession.

Graduate entry

“The most commonly used route is still the university route,” explains Lynne Hamilton-Gow, head of marketing and acting head of student recruitment at ICAEW. There are excellent graduate trainee programmes across the profession, from the Big Four to the not-for-profit sector. But there is a longstanding myth that graduates need to have degrees related to business and finance, and it is one ICAEW is keen to explode. “Quite a large percentage of our students come from what we call non-related degrees,” Hamilton-Gow says. While 31% of graduates do join from accounting and finance degrees, 27% are from business and management subjects, 15% studied arts subjects, while 11% studied maths and 9% science.

The so-called milkround is still part of the recruitment process, with firms visiting campuses across the country, but the approach has been updated in recent years. For example, Linda Emery, head of graduate recruitment at KPMG, says: “KMPG has a wide-ranging programme of outreach activity at both schools and universities. We run activities for students such as ‘application boot camps’, plus skills workshops focusing on building the skills that students will need in the workplace, and general awareness sessions about career opportunities on offer.”

For students who know at the age of 18 that they would like to go to university and plan to become chartered accountants, there are some very specific options available. “We have a number of strategic degree programmes that have evolved in recent years,” explains Stiles. Strategic degrees are offered at a number of universities, including Warwick, Newcastle and Henley Business School at the University of Reading.

The programmes vary, but essentially combine campus-based study with progressively more challenging work experience. Students work through the ACA exams during the course of their degrees, so that they graduate with the first 12 ACA papers under their belts.

School leavers/apprenticeships

There are different levels of school-leaver programmes and apprenticeships as well as an Association of Accounting Technicians-ACA Fast Track route. These have been gathering momentum recently, thanks in part to the apprenticeship levy introduced in 2017. Employers in England with a wage bill of £3m or more pay an annual levy towards apprenticeship schemes. They can in turn apply to dip into the central fund to help cover the cost of training employees. The government has announced plans for some three million apprenticeships across different industries by 2020.

“There is an increasing recognition that the more diverse your employee base is, the stronger you are as an organisation: you are better at approaching problems from different perspectives”

Hamilton-Gow explains the interest from employers who see the potential benefits: “While employers would have been fully funding their employees through the ACA, they can get government funding now. That is quite a shift, and we are certainly seeing employers exploring school leaver routes as a way of ensuring they attract diverse talent into the business.”

Indeed, firms are increasingly seeing the potential, not just in terms of cost but also in enhancing the workforce by widening the recruitment net. As Stiles says: “There is a recognition from organisations, including accountancy firms, that you are better at decision making if you have a more diverse workforce, and that has encouraged the school leaver route.”

The Social Mobility Employer Index ranks Britain’s employers on the actions they are taking to ensure they are open to accessing and progressing talent from all backgrounds. Last year, Grant Thornton came top. As CEO Sacha Romanovitch said: “Investing in social mobility is a win-win and a great example of business doing well by doing good. Businesses get access to a hidden talent pool, bringing diverse perspectives and better reflecting the clients we serve. Communities benefit through recognition of talent and the reward of opportunities and development.”

Business & Finance Professional

ICAEW’s Level 4 qualification is the Certificate in Finance, Accounting and Business (ICAEW CFAB). Employers were keen for CFAB to be given greater recognition, and ICAEW decided to build a new designatory framework for CFAB holders.

And so the Business and Finance Professional (BFP)designation was born. To qualify for BFP designation, you need to hold the CFAB certificate, have successfully completed the same Ethics Learning Programme that ACA students must follow and have 12 months work experience. While BFP holders are not ICAEW members, they are held to similar rigorous standards.

As Nikki Campbell-Gumb, ICAEW head of member strategy and product development, explains: “BFP holders are bound by our CPD regulations, so they have to do ongoing CPD in the same way that a member would, and they must pay a subscription to ICAEW.”

BPF is a new designation, which will have a varied appeal for people who have decided not to pursue the ACA but want to hold a professional designation and gain recognition for their ongoing hard work. “We hope people who have or are working towards our CFAB qualification will be interested in BFP as it brings an additional element of robustness and professionalism to the qualification. CFAB is an already great qualification in its own right and now we have BFP as an option it’s likely to greatly widen its appeal,” says Campbell-Gumb.

Case study

The high flying apprentice

At the age of just 21, Ali Qasim is on the verge of becoming one of the youngest chartered accountants in the world. “My route is not the norm,” says Qasim, an analyst in the global advisory division at investment bank Rothschild.

He attended Manchester Grammar school and sat five A-levels at the age of 16, gaining a bevy of A* and A grades two years ahead of his peers. While he was considering his next steps, his older brother was applying for graduate jobs in finance.

“When he was offered a job at PwC I started to become interested in what they did,” he says. A career path began to take shape. “I had some fantastic university offers but I thought, what will I do when I graduate? I’ll probably apply for a job like the one my brother has. PwC employs school leavers – so why don’t I apply now?”

Qasim became one of the youngest employees at PwC, beginning his Association of Taxation Technician (ATT) exams aged 17, and achieved the highest mark in the country in one of his tax exams. With this and his Level 4 qualification in the bag, Qasim decided to study for the ACA, this time achieving the highest marks in the world.

An offer to join Rothschild was too good an opportunity to ignore. He made the move and is completing his final ACA exams. “I get asked whether I regret not going to university,” he says. “But this was the best way for me. I have gained so much life experience.”

Case study

The globetrotting graduate

Sarah Dixon studied geography at the University of Bristol and when she graduated she found a job as an environmental consultant. “I soon realised it wasn’t quite for me,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work in international development, so I spoke to several people about the best way to get there. I was told that getting a skill and taking it back into the industry was a sensible and safe way to do it, so I decided to do the ACA.”

Dixon worked in audit at PwC for four years. “My experience of the ACA training was really good. It is hard work, particularly through the exams, but the experience you obtain across so many skill sets is invaluable; and having a certified qualification to back it up is great.”

Once qualified, she preferred to wait until the right role came along. It soon did. “A recruiter tracked me down on LinkedIn and placed me at PKF Littlejohn, where I was a humanitarian aid project field auditor for two years,” she says. She is now in a more strategic financial position as the projects finance manager at Ark – an education charity – where she has been for eight months.” One of her favourite parts of the job is the travel – she has been to New York, India, Palestine and Israel. Would she recommend a graduate trainee programme? “I really would. It is a great start to any career and opens the door to working in so many different industries, roles and locations,” says Dixon.

This article was originally published by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales in January 2018. You can read the article here.