Practice versus industry: should you switch?

With top accountancy qualifications, the world is your oyster. You can work abroad; move across companies and sectors and indeed branch out from a pure accountancy role onto other career paths.

The major decision is whether you want to work in practice or industry or switch from one to the other. So what are the pros and cons of both?

Moving around

The image of accountants being predictable, steady accountant spending their career at the same job – even the same desk – is one from fiction, not real life. Accountants move jobs, direction, and career paths regularly as they climb the ladder. The biggest move most make is from practice into industry.

Practice means working for an accountancy firm, be it a small concern (even self-employed) or a huge multinational. Industry means working for a company or organisation – anything from a huge local authority to a small manufacturing company – usually in its accounts department.

Key take away: The great thing about having accountancy qualifications is that you can move between job types and sectors easily.

Practice can be perfect

Working for an accountancy firm has many advantages. Career progression paths may be defined so you know how you’ll climb the path. You’ll also be surrounded by other accountancy professionals, so you can learn and be mentored by others.

Working in practice means you’ll be dealing with a range of clients so you won’t want for variety in your work. You could have clients working in many different sectors and industries. But Gary Darlington, senior manager at staffing business Walters People says: “Practice can be more traditional, with a more structured approach. Industry can be a bit more flexible and it’s more of a meritocracy: do well and you could be promoted faster than you might in practice.”

Key take away: Practice can offer a lot of variety and you’ll also learn from others at work

Advantages of industry

If you work in accountancy within industry, then you’ll be immersed in one business or organisation. You won’t be pulled in different directions by a variety of clients. You might also find it easier to change focus – many chief executives started out on the accounts side – and as one of the designated financial experts you may find your views and ideas are acted on. On the flip side you might miss the interaction with other accountants.

In addition, the career path in industry might be less well defined. In practice, you might expect to reach partner level after five or more years: the career progression is less structured in industry.

Key take away: If you’re interested in a particular sector – be it media, education or anything – then you can work as an accountant in your chosen industry. And you might end up with a non-accountancy role

Should I swap around?

While many will start their accountancy careers in practice over your career you might well move between practice and industry and back again. But will moving around damage your prospects? No, says James Brent, Director at Hays Accountancy & Finance. “It’s difficult to say whether some will suit practice rather than industry as there is so much variation in practice in terms of size, types of clients and range of specialisms. 

“As it’s tricky to generalise, remember that all experience whether it’s in practice or industry is valuable to your career. In today’s working world, it’s fully accepted that professionals will have a variety of jobs across industries and functions.” Darlington adds: “On the whole, it is easier to move from practice into industry than the others way round, simply because you have that precise skill set gained from your time in practice.”

Key take away: Moving between industry and practice is a good way of testing the water and will only enhance your marketability.

What’s best for me?

 Ask yourself some questions. Do you, for example, value variety more than anything? You might suit practice with its range of clients. Or do you want a clear career progression with determined salary levels – again, practice might be perfect. But do you want to branch out away from accountancy and see yourself doing something different in the future? And do you thrive on the buck stopping with you, without having lots of other accountancy experts around you? Industry could be for you.

Darlington adds: “Working in practice is amazing from the technical perspective: you gain skills which will make you attractive to employers.  It can be tough: you’re going to be working in a busy environment with different clients to service. However, if you work in industry you will probably gain more commercial experience which will make you attractive to employers.”

Salary levels

A recent survey* found that the average salary for accountants in industry is higher – with both the lowest and highest salaries better in industry than practice (£20,000 versus £11,975 and £400,000 versus £225,000) but these are figures from 2018. However work-life balance was better for practice accountants, who work fewer hours a week.

Key take away: Think about whether salary or work-life balance is more important to you 

All experience is good

While it is probably easier to move from practice into industry than the other way around (but if you make sure you keep up to date with changes in accountancy and software then it will be less of a potential concern) it’s not difficult. And a varied CV will boost your marketability. Brent adds: “It’s definitely a good idea to include a wide range of experience on your CV. You can go into detail on the different clients you have audited, mention the industries, the names of the companies, their turnovers and what you have done. 

“Even presentations to financial directors, managing directors, or business partners are worth mentioning. This experience will help a potential employer see how you have contributed to your organisation.” And Darlington adds: “From a recruiters’ point of view, all experience which adds to your CV helps. It’s a very competitive job market out there for accountancy specialists: anything you can do to make yourself stand out from others will be invaluable.”

Summary

What suits one person won’t suit another, but it does make sense to try both practice and industry out. There is nothing to be lost moving between the two: indeed you’ll only enhance your employability. Click here for more advice.

Further reading:

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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