As an area of accountancy that can be studied less expensively than others, bookkeeping – which can either be a satisfying long-term career option in itself or (if the individual prefers) a stepping stone to a more advanced accountancy role – is one of the key ways to help social mobility.
One of the urgent issues of our times, barely a month goes by without an eyebrow-raising report on ever-widening wealth inequality in developed nations. The latest estimate is that by 2030, the richest 1% will earn some 64% of global wealth.
“Practices are at the sharp of end of bookkeeping provision,” says Adam Williamson, Head of Professional Standards at AAT, “and can help in real, practical ways by advertising more widely – for example actively recruiting from schools and colleges in disadvantaged areas – and then supporting staff in undertaking qualifications, such as those offered by AAT.
This might be through financial support, offering practical help and advice, or providing sufficient time for studies.”
Opportunities at all levels
Consider the case of 19-year-old Grant Thornton associate accountant Katie Crompton, who knew after leaving school that she didn’t want to go to university. Crompton took up the opportunity of a week’s work experience, and got a place on Grant Thornton’s school leaver programme.
“I have been given responsibility and treated like an adult from the start,” Crompton says; “every day is different which allows me to continually learn new things.”
In future years, she hopes “to go on secondments to other countries using the qualifications the school leaver programme has given me.” Crompton’s now taking a five-year training programme and working towards her AAT qualifications.
As a result of initiatives like this, Grant Thornton has been ranked first amongst the Top 50 employers for 2017 “who have taken the most action to improve social mobility in the workplace”, according to the Social Mobility Employer Index.
Challenges facing bookkeeping
One of the biggest challenges facing bookkeeping as it attracts new recruits is a perception that finance is not a profession that anyone can go into.
Lloyd Powell, Head of ACCA Cymru Wales, says that “many of our members and students refer to their initial view of accountancy as dominated by a certain type of person – white, male and middle class – which can be extremely off-putting for many who do not fit into that stereotype.”
What’s important to stress, Powell adds, “is this is, of course, an outdated stereotype of the profession.”
But there’s a question to be asked of how accountancy more generally is presenting itself as a career choice to younger people.
“Only 9% of respondents to the ACCA survey in the UK said they were influenced by a school or university teacher or careers advisor,” says Powell.
“This obviously hinders those who come from backgrounds where no family member or friend already works in an accountancy-related field.” Joint research between AAT and ACCA in 2016 found that 31% of 16-18 year olds had received no careers advice regarding apprenticeships, for example.
“While AAT qualifications recognise that traineeships, apprenticeships, direct employment and so on are essential, and often a springboard to employment, self-employment or degree level success, these options are rarely discussed in schools and college,’ Williamson says.
Widespread eradication of specialist careers advice
“Progression to Higher Education is a success measurement – there are financial incentives for schools to keep students and there has been widespread eradication of specialist careers advice.”
In terms of raising awareness, “almost all education post-16 is a matter of choice and must reflect the individual needs and expectations of the student. Equally important for AAT students and members is the support they get once they’ve decided on that route,” Williamson argues.
“Highlighting the many benefits of taking different routes is key – financial, flexibility, independence, etc.”
To set yourself up as a bookkeeper, technology obviously has a role to play here, in terms of distance learning and computer-based exams; but this technology has to be enabled by a culture that understands the particular needs that those from less advantaged backgrounds might have: such as needing longer to study, for example.
Advice for employers looking at taking on in-house bookkeepers
“It’s important that they carefully consider biases in the recruitment process – and take pro-active steps to remove them,” Powell says.
“There can be an unconscious tendency within organisations to favour new hires who reflect the existing culture and employee demographic.” This can potentially undermine the social mobility goals “that many organisations are often sincerely committed to, but can struggle to attain.”
Positive changes are happening
Some 64% of respondents to ACCA’s recent Purpose and Profession report in the UK came from backgrounds “where neither parent went to university; and we have a roughly equal gender split across a global membership,” says Powell.
“But there is also a wider lack of understanding about the opportunities presented by a finance career and the flexibility available to those seeking to enter the profession.”
AAT is proud that 70% of its membership are women, and 17% are from BAME backgrounds. Both of these statistics are above the national demographic average.
“Social mobility has always been a core driver of AAT qualifications – being open and accessible to everyone – and one which the organisation is rightly proud of,” Williamson says.
“However, equality of opportunity does not necessarily lead to equality of outcome.” AAT is addressing this directly, starting with paid summer internships this year for students from the most deprived boroughs of London.
The profession is improving on social mobility
For Powell, “there are good signs that the profession is improving on social mobility and there are tangible steps we can take to improve in the short and long terms.”
Whilst the profession shouldn’t be complacent, “new technology and the opening up of global markets have offered new opportunities for social mobility and improved access to the profession.”
Bookkeepers – and bookkeepers-to-be – can take full advantage of social networks, for instance, as they have terrific potential to break down that old perception of a ‘closed shop’ when it comes to networking and making professional connections.
“This is still an incredibly exciting time for the profession,” Powell says. “While there is no silver bullet to improving social mobility, we can continue to work harder towards opening up those opportunities to a deepening talent pool.”
The business case for increasing social mobility is clear. “Diverse workforces are more successful both financially and in terms of employee engagement and therefore productivity,” says Williamson.
“In many ways, it’s a no-brainer. If your workplace has thoughtful input from a range of backgrounds and experiences, you will get greater creativity in how to achieve your business objectives.”
Helping people at an individual level to develop careers that will be not only satisfying, but also remuneratively beneficial, is one small but very significant way to address this trend; and bookkeeping can play a key role in the shift.
Watch out for Bookkeeping Week 14-18 May 2018 – for study resources and support.
Take control of your future with AAT qualifications. Find a course now.
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.