Expert advice for every stage of your career

Stuck in the wrong job? Desperate for a career change? Worried that your skills have vanished while on parental leave? Check out the tips shared by our careers experts below…

Thanks to digital disruption, the boom in flexible working and the gig economy, today the average person changes careers five-seven times during their lifetime. For those accountants settled into comfortable careers, it’s forced many to rethink their entire future…

Whatever your age or experience making career changes can be daunting. As part of our PowerUp on Careers campaign, we’ve amassed tips from careers experts for anybody facing such career conundrums.

Early stage – first five years in the workplace

Scenario 1: I haven’t got enough work experience

“When I got into accountancy, you needed a degree from a good university to get into the big four. Now, big accountancy firms recognise that the qualifications you have from university aren’t as important as your attitude once you’re in the job” says Simon Gray a professional recruiter and former KPMG accountant.

“There’s no shortage of work in the financial services right now,” says Matt Weston, managing director at financial recruitment firm Robert Half. “To get a foothold, promote your ‘trainability’ by showing that you’re enthusiastic and willing to learn. Today, many companies want that hunger and passion from new recruits.”

The big four accountancy firms are no exception.

Today, many of KPMG’s brightest young staffers aren’t just graduates fresh from university, but school-leavers too. Many have joined the company’s well-received KPMG360° apprenticeship scheme, which sees them working in different areas of the company while studying AAT qualifications.

“Those new recruits who display a real passion really stand out,” says Tizzy Blythin, KPMG’s head of professional qualifications and accreditations. “They are inquisitive, hungry to learn and take every opportunity thrown at then.”

Top tip: If you’re worried that your CV or LinkedIn profile lacks vocational experience, furnish it with financial know-how that you may have accumulated, such as overseeing the budget of a local charity, managing your family finances or running a part-time eBay business.

“Think about examples whereby you’ve added value outside the workplace,” says Weston. “Have you captained a team? Perhaps there’s a charity you’ve been involved with. Don’t think putting this information on your CV is trivial. It’s not: it demonstrates you’ve been proactive.”

Scenario 2: It’s impossible for me to get ahead as my bosses have no idea who I am

“A great way to get onto your boss’s radar is to find a recent tweet or blog they’ve written on LinkedIn, and then comment, like or share it,” says Gray.

As for the workplace, prepare to volunteer yourself for everything. “If you’re that person who offers help, whether it’s for business or social events or CSR, you’ll massively increase your prospects of developing within that organisation,” adds Gray. “Many younger people just want to blend in and sit back. Always aim to be that person at presentations with their hand up at the end.”

Top tip: Are you brilliant at blockchain? A TikTok talent-in-the-making? Then, being young and tech-savvy could boost your career progression. “The role of the accountant today isn’t like that of the bean-counter 20 years ago,” says Gray. “Today, firms are looking for business advisers who can navigate new technologies such as blockchain, cloud accounting or data analytics.

Mid-stage – 5-15 years in the workplace

Scenario 1: I’m not enjoying my job anymore

“Many people in this stage of their career get lost,” explains Gray. “They’ve done their job for a long time, are probably paid quite well, but something’s missing. They could be driving to work in the morning or travelling by bus and don’t feel remotely excited about the day ahead. If you don’t feel motivated or challenged, then it’s a clue you’ve probably outlived your current role. Unfortunately, not many people choose to listen to this voice…”

Quite often, the biggest barrier preventing people from pursuing a career they love is money: by the time they’ve worked for 15 years, many professionals have families and are, understandably, reluctant to retrain or accept a smaller salary.

However, as experts point out, it’s worth remembering that any short-term pain and uncertainty triggered by leaving your job could eventually be dwarfed by the financial rewards and happiness when the job succeeds.

Top tip: Even if you detest your day-to-day work, it’s worth staying temporarily put: there could be other opportunities at your company. Many people working for large firms are often unaware about potential jobs within their organisation.

Scenario 2: I’ve taken a career break to raise my kids, but have spent so long away from the workplace, I’m worried my skills have disappeared

An all-too-familiar problem for many AAT members. After spending a good decade-or-so building a career, many workers take time off to have children. Yet, the sleepless nights and nappies of parental leave can leave many accountants feeling that their skills have stagnated, or that their jobs may have disappeared when they return to their old companies.  

Executive coach Jo Emerson – who returned to studying as a 39-year-old single mother – recommends having a pep talk with yourself first. “Examine the tape running in your head,” she says. “If the tape is saying, ‘I haven’t worked in a long time and am out of the loop’, then you’ll have a tricky time. Challenge that tape: is what you’re saying really true?”

“Try to stay current with what’s happening in your sector,” adds Gray. “Can you upskill? Is there any CPD stuff you can keep up with as an accountant? Also, while you’re away, there’ll be new legislation and tech changes: subscribe to publications and visit conferences, so you can stay visible and engaged.”

“It’s not unusual for people who’ve taken a career break to feel that they aren’t relevant any more and that their skills are rusty,” says Weston. “But it’s worth remembering that the core skills that businesses want today are passion, personality and adaptability.”

Top tip: As Emerson points out, once you return to work, you may find you’ve been undervaluing any new skills you’ve picked up during your hiatus, such as multi-tasking and time management.

Mature – more than 15 years in the workplace

Scenario 1: I’d like to go freelance, possibly setting up my own company, but I’m afraid to take the risk

Having spent a couple of decades in your profession, it’s easy to daydream about a new life: one where there are no more soul-crushing commutes or horrible bosses, but sunny days working from a laptop in the garden instead. Could it really be time to become one of the UK’s 4.8m self-employed army?

To avoid the knockbacks that come with being freelance, Gray suggests finding your specialism first. “If you’ve worked this long, you will definitely have some transferable skills,” he says. “But don’t fall into the trap of believing you’ll get more opportunities by making yourself more flexible. Instead, if you’re, say, an accountant who’s an expert in international accounting standards, that could be your focus in the marketplace… “

Weston notes that Robert Half has seen a recent increase in freelance workers working within the finance industry: “In particular, there’s currently a strong market for interim workers [specialists who have usually worked in-house at manager level, but now work on time-limited projects usually ranging from three-12 months].

If you’re an expert in enterprise resource planning [ERP], then that’s also a big market at the moment because every company will move to the cloud in the next few years and change their ERP strategy as a result.”

“But only become an interim worker because you want to do it,” he warns. “And make sure you’re financially secure too. There won’t be a natural flow of work; you might have a fortnight without work occasionally.”

As retirement approaches

Scenario 1: I’d like to change jobs but am worried any future employers will be ageist

Recent ONS statistics showed that the number of over-70s still working has doubled within the last year; only 2.6 per cent of 50-64-year-olds are unemployed. It all suggests that ageist prejudice against older workers could (finally) be a thing of the past.

“There’s plenty of research to show people in their 50s and 60s can make valuable contributions to companies,” says Sarah Churchman, head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing at PwC. “In professional services currently, when you see an older person, there’s an assumption they’re a partner or more senior, I think that could change over time… We are seeing more people stay on beyond the normal retirement age here. All companies need to take into account that people will be working for longer.”

If you still fear ageist HR professionals, it’s also worth remembering that entrepreneurs aged over 50 employ more people than startups run by younger executives. And should you crave a more radical career change, it’s also worth considering one of the many ‘encore jobs’, many in social impact sectors such as teaching, the environment or local communities.

“Never mention your age during the application process,” cautions Weston. “If a potential employer does ask how old you are, it’s really not appropriate. Today, many companies have a blind CV process [where the interviewer is given no information about the candidate’s age or educational background], which can help… If you see a job advertised, go for it. Don’t put any barriers on yourself.”

Scenario 2: I’d love to retrain but fear brain rot

Memory loss and deteriorating brain power is something many mature workers cite as a reason for not picking up new skills. But learning during the later stages of your career can not only enhance your wellbeing but improve your career prospects too.

“Lifelong learning is the best university,” says Gray. “Today when I attend digital marketing courses, there are many people in the room in their 50s and 60s. They’ve taken that first step. Get on Amazon and order some books, or log on to YouTube: there’s never been a better time for you to learn.”

Elżbieta Paldyna-Ahmet began studying AAT in 2014 as a 57-year-old. Today, she works as a business analyst for HMRC in Worthing, West Sussex. “I’ve found my years of experience has given me an advantage. Having previously run my own business, I knew how to manage people, keep costs down and have analytical skills… Learning shouldn’t finish at school/college/university. Throughout life, you’re always finding out something new. Make sure you challenge yourself whenever possible.”

In summary

Whether you’re on the first rung of the ladder or edging towards retirement, thanks to various schemes (ranging from ‘returnships’ to ‘encore jobs’ through to online educational resources) there’s never been a more opportune time to make changes should you find yourself at a career crossroads.

Further reading:

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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