In times of crisis, the accountancy industry tends to thrive. But will the profession still be a stable career choice in the months and years to come?
When the going gets tough, the clamour for jobs gets going. In August, an advert for a London trainee accountant’s job appeared on jobs website CV-Library. Usually, such an advert would only garner a handful of responses. Yet, the website was soon deluged with a staggering 3,272 applications.
It’s a trend evident elsewhere within financial services. Firms that previously struggled to recruit quality candidates pre-pandemic are now being bombarded with hundreds of applications. AAT has also seen an uptick in ‘career changers’ applying to study.
New research by AAT shows that the accountancy and finance sector is seen as the third most stable profession, behind health and pharmaceuticals and teaching. One in four employees aged 16-34 is currently considering a new career as the economic impact of coronavirus pandemic bites.
A new career in accountancy
Regardless of your age or employment history, it’s never too late to start a new career in the finance profession.
On the one hand, the rise in applications is partly down to the growing numbers of professional workers who have been made redundant (this summer UK companies were planning more than 300,000 redundancies) or were furloughed. But it also hints at a wider truth: during times of crisis, accountancy is seen as a stable, desirable profession.
As with the aftermath of the 2008 recession, accountants will be in demand to help companies restructure, identify unnecessary expenditures and navigate complex – and possibly advantageous – tax laws. The Bank of England recently warned that unemployment would rise to 2.5m people in the UK, yet accountancy looks set to ride out the Covid-19 recession relatively unscathed. Those already in the industry can also expect their workload to increase thanks to assisting companies with the end of the Brexit transition period, plus rapidly-changing tax and audit regulation.
But what are your chances of bagging an accountancy job this year? Are there any sectors of the profession that will grow? And is it a good idea to move jobs within accountancy if you’re working in the industry already?
Here accounting and recruitment experts give us their predictions for the profession.
What are accountancy job prospects like for…
Prospects over 12 months?
“Finance is recession-proof,” says Karen Chilton, regional manager for financial recruitment specialist, Marks Sattin. “Accountancy isn’t a luxury for business: it’s important.”
In the immediate future, accountants will be busy, as companies dealing with the financial havoc caused by the coronavirus (Covid-19) will be calling upon their help. Chilton has noted that Marks Sattin has seen an “increase in vacancies for insolvency practitioners; something that’ll become increasingly important over the next few years.”
The surge in insolvency/restructuring experts is perhaps no surprise given that the finances/revenue streams of many firms have been decimated by coronavirus, meaning they’ll be looking to cut costs and consolidate resources.
With many SMEs prioritising cash flow and looking to strip any needless spending from their P&L statement, any accountants skilled in cost-cutting will also be busy. Likewise, there could be opportunities for tax experts who can deal with the tax issues triggered by government loans, as well as advisers with high EQ who can reassure anxious clients about their businesses.
During lockdown, the way in which employees adapted to working from home has triggered a cultural shift for many firms, who are now reviewing their flexible working practices.
Lorna Renton, accountancy services manager at Warrington-based accountancy firm Brookson One, believes it “has widened our geographical reach in terms of recruitment; we can look for talent nationally instead of within a commutable distance… Homeworking also opens up the opportunity for accessing pools of talent in populations such as working parents or students who previously may not have been attracted to life at a professional practice.”
Prospects over 2-5 years?
When the financial crisis triggered by Covid-19 eventually fades (it’s predicted that the UK economy won’t recover until the end of 2022), some of the other issues seen as ‘threats’ to accountancy prior to the pandemic will come to the fore again: automation/technological disruption, cryptocurrencies and the rise of data-driven jobs.
This doesn’t mean that accountancy jobs will disappear. While automation looks set to relieve accountants of mundane admin tasks, it’ll leave them with more time to focus on parts of their job that machines can’t do: advising clients, problem-solving and deciphering data so the company can make strategic decisions.
Still, accountants will need to future-proof themselves with transferable skills, says Chilton: “With the rise of automation, companies will be seeking advice and reassurance. Therefore, ‘communicator’ accountants who sit in a boardroom and help make calculated decisions will do well.”
Today, businesses are increasingly relying upon data to help forecast sales, strengthen internal audit and target consumers. For accountants, a crash-course in data isn’t a bad idea.
“Data analysis and science will blend with the world of finance in the coming years,” says Lee Owen, director at recruitment firm Hays. “Those accountants with good IT skills who can interpret data to highlight where opportunities might be within a business, or new markets they can access, or even make the business leaner – will be in demand.”
The first half of the 2020s will also see many organisations embarking upon digital transformations to make themselves more efficient: good news for tech-savvy accountants. The rise of blockchain and digital currencies combined with new regulation/taxes being drafted for new tech such as drones and driverless vehicles, could see new accountancy roles created too.
Experience: what are accountancy job prospects like for…
There’s been plenty of grim employment news generated by Covid-19, not least stories that young people look set to be hit the hardest. A recent report by the Resolution Foundation thinktank predicted a bleak future for the “corona class of 2020”, expressing fears dole queues could swell. Meanwhile, entry-level jobs have been cut by almost a quarter this year due to coronavirus, according to an Institute of Student Employers survey.
Getting a foot in the door has certainly been challenging for young job-seekers this year. Many large organisations, such as Lloyds and Santander, have scrapped summer internships, while remote working restrictions has made training/onboarding new recruits difficult.
So far, accountancy seems to have been spared this plight (although BDO, the UK’s fifth-largest accounting firm, also furloughed first-year trainees and cancelled summer internships).
“Students are facing a challenging jobs market this year but there are still opportunities available in accountancy for young talent,” says Matthew Jeffery, UK and Ireland recruitment director at EY (Ernst & Young) which has continued its graduate, apprenticeship and internship programmes despite the complications caused by Covid-19.
One assured route into accountancy is apprenticeships: this year EY welcomed 200 school-leavers onto its apprenticeship programmes (its second-largest leaver intake), while the government’s Kickstart scheme aims to fund work placements for 16-24-year-olds, and pay businesses that hire apprenticeships.
“I don’t think accountancy firms will want to reduce graduates and apprentice intake,” says Chilton. “Around seven years ago we struggled to recruit for young people in areas such as audit. But now firms need skilled employees because they took on less young people years ago and have since suffered. They won’t want to do that again.”
“For young people considering a career in accountancy, my advice would be to think carefully about your options and whether a graduate or apprenticeship route could be the right thing for you,” says Jeffery. “Also plan ahead: EY’s applications for graduate, apprenticeship and internship schemes for September 2021 are already open. And don’t forget many companies are hosting virtual sessions such as online quizzes to help them understand if they’d be a good match for their business.”
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Middle management and senior roles
According to recruiters, higher-ranked accounting professionals are still much sought-after despite the travails of Covid-19.
“Most of the demand we’ve had has been for jobs such as financial and management accountants,” says Chilton. “They’ve earned their stripes and experience and everybody seems to want them. Despite the crisis, people are still hiring good-quality accountants.”
“The mid-level has been much in demand,” echoes Hays’ Owen. “We’ve seen CFOs struggle to recruit finance managers because there’s less of those candidates in the marketplace… It’s still very difficult to find these high-calibre candidates in middle-management on £40-50,000 salaries.”
If any mid-level accountants are seeking a career change, they should also consider upskilling too.
“For any senior role in the accountancy industry, financial expertise is a given,” says Renton. “But I’d expect a senior manager to also concentrate on management/leadership or other specialised training to demonstrate the balanced skill set needed to drive a business forward.”
By sector: what are accountancy job prospects like…
Accountancy practice prospects
Owen envisions more openings at public practices and chartered accountancy firms due to clients needing increased help/advice dealing with the economic chaos unleashed by Covid-19 (not to mention post-Brexit uncertainty too): “Chartered accountancy firms have always been candidate-short and job-rich so they’ll continue recruiting. They’re an obvious choice for young job-seekers/student accountants, because ‘do-ers’ are the powerhouses of public practice firms and it’s hard to find them.”
With the government’s furloughing scheme complicating payroll runs at many companies, many smaller practices have recently advertised for payroll positions, notes Chilton.
The past year has also seen a rash of new businesses established by people who have either been made redundant or reevaluated their careers while working from home during lockdown. According to Renton, this could mean “client bases in smaller practices have the opportunity to grow, and consequently more entry-level students and AAT-qualified professionals will also benefit.”
In-house finance teams
When considering applying for industry (in-house) roles, it’s worth thinking about what sectors are likely to flourish (or not) over the next few years
“Certain organisations are busier due to Covid-19, such as those in pharmaceuticals, food/beverage and FCMG/fast-moving consumer goods (confectionery, soaps/detergents, petcare etc),” says Owen. “As a result, they’ll have more opportunities for accountants… If AstraZeneca has an internal recruitment team, I’d be trying to get myself onto their radar.” Sectors predicted to suffer in the next few years include travel/transport and retail.
Accountancy roles within businesses are also set to change, says Owen: “Organisations are looking to drive business forward through revenue growth… As a result, finance is moving more towards a business partnering function [accountants who work across different departments within a business, gathering financial info, data and 360° insight to help leaders make more strategic decisions]. If an accountant asks me about what their career looks like in the future, I’d urge them to develop business partnering qualities. They’ll need to understand the challenges that, say, salespeople, procurement managers and marketing directors face.”
“It won’t be enough for future leaders to be skilled in their core discipline alone,” adds Renton. “I think this will create opportunities for AAT-qualified individuals who don’t necessarily want to be accountants but can demonstrate a clear understanding of accounts, compliance and strategy.”
Public sector finance
Accountants working within the public sector have been at the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis, helping channel the mind-boggling sums of cash currently flowing through the NHS, education and local authorities.
The busy workload looks set to continue. The government spending on coronavirus measures has seen public sector debt soar to £2 trillion, meaning cost-cutting is inevitable.
“The public sector will be active in finance recruitment,” says Renton. “In particular, they’ll be looking for those with commercial backgrounds and mindsets. Not only do they have an obligation to protect the public purse, but they’ll also need to work under more significant business constraints.”
Local authorities will also need financial staff, says Owen: “The job retention scheme means they should have additional work. And if we enter a recession, there could be demand for social housing.”
Charities and ethical business
The funding shortfall caused by Covid-19 has left one in ten British charities facing bankruptcy, according to Pro Bono Economics. Conversely, this shortfall could see the sector reaching out to accountants who can help them “restructure as a commercial organisation would,” says Owen.
As the corporate world develops a growing ethical consciousness (see multinationals from Nestlé to Nokia making carbon-neutral pledges), the government has mooted that ‘green collar jobs’ could swell to 2m by 2030. With the Financial Reporting Council recently launching a review into whether auditors should reflect the financial risks of climate crisis such as carbon emissions in their accounts, this could create new accountancy roles too.
“A business that puts ‘purpose’ for performance outside of EBITDA will also attract good people and promote a superior brand image,” says Renton. “Data and KPIs lend themselves just as well to bank balances and sales targets, as they do to monitoring waste reduction and emissions.”
“In the future, nearly every organisation will experience some degree of transformation,” says Owen. “Many companies will have skills to deal with this transformation internally, but many won’t, which could result in more opportunities for the self-employed.”
“Also, if a company has made cuts that are too deep and too early, there will be more pressure on the business. If they’ve made a redundancy, they can’t go out and hire in the same role. But they may need to go down the freelance route to solve that problem.”
It is also possible that start-ups and small businesses will be more inclined to seek professional help with bookkeeping and accounts to make them more resilient.
“Many organisations will be nervous about the next few years and will want to inject some expertise into the business,” predicts Owen. “We might see more clients wanting to hire interim accountants to solve the problem. Once things settle down, these interims could be taken on permanently.”
Accountants specialising in change consultancy will also be needed, says Chilton: “When Covid-19 hit, many companies didn’t have technology set up for their people working remotely or pivoting from physical to digital-only. These firms will be putting in new systems, which could see more work for those accountants working in business change and systems implementation.”
Owen has noticed that changes to audit regulations have resulted in “second-tier firms getting many audit assignments pushed out to them [rather than the big four], so there could be opportunities with these firms. These second-tier firms are good places for accountants to find work, because they’re getting busier, yet traditionally struggle to find quality people.”
Among the reccomendations in last year’s Brydon Report – which was aimed at fixing the scandal-hit auditing sector – was the creation of a standalone audit profession (separate from accountancy) which could also result in new roles being created for those who want to bring new levels of trust and integrity to the occupation.
And finally: what about the £££?
Accounting salaries remain competitive:
- Chief financial officer: £123,000-£260,000
- Qualified management/financial accountant: £39,750-£65,000
- Finance systems manager: £55,000-£92,750
- Director of audit & risk: £80,000-£120,000
- Accounts assistant: £18,500+
- Assistant management/financial accountant: £22,000+
- Credit controller: £18,500+
- Company accountant: £31,000+
- Risk/compliance associate: £31,000+
- Internal auditor: £33,000+
Source: Robert Half Salary Guide, 2020
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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.