Bridging the gap between education and career

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Once you have qualified as an accountant or a bookkeeper, what should your next step be? How much training can you expect in your first job, and is there any opportunity for further study?

We look at the options you can potentially take – from apprenticeship, training contract or learning on the job.

The opportunity to learn on the job

If you’re a graduate or you have just qualified, you will be thinking carefully about your next career step.

Your first job in accountancy or bookkeeping can give you a good grounding in the practical application of the skills you have been studying and enable you to benefit from the experience of your co-workers.

If you are looking at alternatives to university and want to fast-track your chartered status, a good option is an accountancy apprenticeship.

With an apprenticeship, you’ll be able to start earning straight away, rather than accruing student debt, and you will also get the same benefits as an employee, including a holiday allowance.

You can study for a recognised accounting qualification while gaining skills on the job and learn, earn and practice at the same time.

Keep your options open

So what should the next step be? For those who have just qualified, employers will be keen for them to hit the ground running as soon as possible and as such are likely to offer good training packages alongside a job offer, says Lee Owen, Director at Hays Accountancy & Finance.

“Training is a really important consideration for accountancy and finance professionals,” he says. “There are many ways in which employers can provide training support to their employees, be this through external training towards professional qualifications, on-the-job training or mentoring.”

Newly qualified accountants are currently in demand, so the majority of employers are open to candidates with and without experience.

“There are lots of opportunities currently available for candidates who are at the start of their career to progress rapidly,” he says. “The right behavioural traits and attitude are often what employers seek to hire alongside an ability to learn on the job.”

Think about your tomorrow

“When you are looking at your future career, think about tomorrow, not just about today,” says Phil Douglas, a qualified Chartered Accountant who has overseen UK, European and US operations at large firms such as Enterprise Rent a Car and who is now managing director at Compleat Software, which provides financial and accounting software to businesses.

“Employers should know and understand that when they take on an apprentice that person will need to be mentored.”

If you go for a first job rather than an apprenticeship or training contract, you can expect higher salary and expectations but also more pressure, he says.

Developing your career

“I think it’s always best to get qualifications and experience on to the CV so I would recommend looking for a job,” says Chris Littlewood, senior accountant at inniAccounts.

“Apprenticeships should be helping people towards that goal, but you may find you limit your options if you don’t consider jobs too.”

The job could be entry level but would help give perspective to your studies.

“Accountancy is a continual development industry so there is always an opportunity to progress further and gain further qualifications,” he says. “Think about what happens after you complete each stage of your training.”

Time for further study

One important consideration is the balance between the demands of the job and the need for additional study.

“Accountancy practices offer varying levels of support from full day release inclusive of revision time to minimal support such as just a day off for the exam,” Chris Littlewood says.

“Generally, you should expect to be self-motivated and be disciplined to take what you learn on the job into evening classes, and, if necessary take holiday to cover any revision time required if that time isn’t already provided by the firm – or you think you’d need extra.”

Find out what’s expected and what’s included in terms of managing your time when you are considering employment options.

A good employer will offer relevant practical experience where possible to line up with examination topics because they want you to do well. They may even go as far as offering mentoring and study support in-house.

For most employers, the support depends on the available resources and capacity to manage the time-off the employee will need to pass their exams.

What are employers looking for?

“In our recruitment process we are looking first of all at the individual’s personality – are they going to be able to integrate into the team and are they flexible in their learning patterns? Says Phil Douglas.

“Then we look at the qualifications that they have and their career path to date.”

He says that being yourself and being open and honest make it more likely that you can secure a job – you are not expected to have the answers to everything or to have never made a mistake.

“In our interview process we look at challenges that the candidate has faced. If they are young and not had much career experience we ask the about their Saturday job and what they contributed to it, what the challenges were and how they overcame them. You don’t need to be like the candidates in The Apprentice TV show who claim never to have made a mistake and always think they have made the right decisions.” Research is important, too, he says.

“We had a recent interviewee who knew that we were a software company with a relaxed dress code, and so he came in jeans and trainers for the interview. That immediately got my attention because he had understood the culture of our company and thought about how to fit into it. It is all about your research and why you want the job.”

New qualified accountants often worry that they will be expected never to make mistakes, but Chris Littlewood says a good employer will help mentor and develop you.

“Employers are aware that the theoretical study does not always apply to the real world and will develop employees with this understanding in mind. Of course, if the role is more senior and comes with supervisory responsibilities then candidates will be expected to have the appropriate experience.”

The benefits of being a self-starter

A positive and enthusiastic attitude is vital at the start of your career, says Lee Owen.

“You want to be seen as proactive and be the person your manager and colleagues can rely on and are happy to work with,” he says.

“Make sure to take personal responsibility of your career right from the very start and make every effort to stay up to date with the skills employers need now and also in the future.”

“Whatever the role, in my experience, employers like to find candidates that are actively managing their own progression and have the drive to self-manage,” Chris Littlewood says. “This includes personal development such as taking note of where there is a knowledge gap that, if they closed would help develop the business further, as well as the skills that would ensure greater compliance – ie putting in place processes and measures that ensure errors do not occur.”

Put together a career plan

Lee Owen says the first step towards managing your career is to establish an achievable, comprehensive plan.

• Make an honest assessment of your professional strengths, interests and weaknesses. For example, which areas do you excel in, and which require development?
• Create realistic and clearly defined statements of your future career goals. Writing down your goals for five or even three years from now may seem far away but once you know where you want to be, it’s much easier to figure out how to get there.
• The world of work is changing so it is important that you stay commercially aware by attending industry events and stay on top of industry news and changes in legislation.

“It’s important to undertake additional qualifications that could be beneficial to your career and see if you can undertake any training either in-house or by an external provider,” he says.

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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