Work experience is a vital opportunity for finance and accountancy students to learn more about their chosen profession in a real-life environment and for those newly-qualified trying to break into full-time work.
It can help shape a career path, allowing you to investigate different sectors, teams and office cultures. Perhaps, more importantly, it can show future employers that you have the right skills and personality for their workplace.
But competition for schemes and entry-level jobs is high. Many students and recently-qualified individuals are frustrated by not being accepted for work experience because of a lack of, you guessed it, work experience. Faced with this challenge, what do our experts recommend for those seeking to boost their practical qualifications?
Manage your expectations
When applying for accountancy or finance work, think about what you might need to progress your career in the next year, rather than where you’d like to be at your peak, says David O’Regan, manager of temporary and contract division at finance and accountancy recruitment specialists Wade Macdonald. “You may not be applying to your dream job but rungs on the ladder to it,” he says.
Some firms will offer work experience to help them fill a particular gap or complete a project, but will not be able to offer you a career. Candidates who realise this will have realistic expectations about what opportunities for work experience this may offer, says O’Regan.
“Have a clear idea about what you want to get out of it, but be flexible. Remember you aren’t going to get an interview every time you apply,” he adds. It’s important to be realistic about the time your search for work may take and the salary you may be able to command at this stage of your career.
Showcase and develop your skills
Employers look beyond technical skills and want communication and leadership abilities, as well as someone with personality, says Peter Stewart, director of learning at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). If you are struggling to gain work experience in accountancy or finance firms, are there other roles you could take that will give you an income and help you develop and demonstrate those other attributes to future employers?
Make the most of any transferable skills you may have from other jobs, internships or voluntary positions, even if they were outside of accountancy, whether that’s communication, organisation, customer service or management skills, says Rumneet Johal from recruitment specialists Milkround: “You may have already exercised the skills you require for a role in accountancy but in a different environment. Nonetheless, these skills are still valuable.”
Most candidates will have the technical skills required, as these have been covered in their training, so showing examples of these other traits and an understanding of how the role you’re applying for fits into the bigger business picture is attractive.
“You may be good at multiplying two numbers together, but tell me what aspects of the business you are analysing when you get those numbers,” explains Stewart.
Candidates who show an understanding of wider business trends, such as the impact that new technologies are having on finance and accounting, will stand out when applying for jobs and placements, adds Stewart. Outside of work experience, consider online courses, tutorials and research to boost this understanding.
Seek out alternatives
Broadening your horizons can be a good route to securing more relevant work experience in finance and accountancy.
“Many accountancy students are blinkered to the fact that there are opportunities beyond a London postcode,” says Nadim Choudhury, head of careers and employability at the London Institute of Banking & Finance, who encourages students and recently-qualified individuals in the south-east to apply for opportunities in mid-tier firms, specifically in cities in the home counties.
“These places are hubs for accountancy firms and don’t get as many applications as central London firms,” he says.
While there might be a desire to work for certain organisations, the competition can be fierce.
“At smaller firms, there are opportunities to do a greater breadth and depth of things and you are likely to be brought into these projects earlier on.”
Choudhury also recommends looking at other industries and businesses which have accountancy or finance departments: “Most people, when they start, think, ‘I want to go and work in an accounting practice.’ What people fail to realise is that every single company has an accounting or finance department.
“Functionally you can be a great accountant but if your passion is in the media or the arts, why not try and apply for something within one of those organisations?”
Am I over-qualified?
If you are nearly through your AAT training, you may be seen as over-qualified for traditional work experience or internship schemes. Instead, consider applying for a full or part-time job in a junior accounts position or as a book ledger clerk, for example, says Choudhury.
“You can go in and put into practice some of what you have learned in your qualifications. The company may then sponsor the rest of your training,” he says.
Administrative roles may also offer opportunities to apply technical skills whilst building experience of working life, adds O’Regan.
Get advice from the right people
If you are struggling to secure interviews, internships or work experience, think about contacting people who have been through the process or who hold jobs that you aspire to. Build your network of contacts, attend events and use LinkedIn to find out more information rather than directly applying for roles.
“Get in touch with the more senior people in the firm to ask for their advice about how they got started and how they got their big break,” says O’Regan.
Think about the different ways you can learn and interact with your target employers, such as online discussion groups. Speaking to recruiters specialising in the finance and accountancy sectors can be extremely valuable and is often overlooked. “You get lots of free advice and to speak with a lot of people who have been there and have advice from their experience,” says O’Regan.
Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.