Finance: Welcome to the new world of accounting

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Newly qualified accountants are starting their working lives in a world of fresh opportunities, it seems, despite rumours of reorganisation among the Big Six and fears of a collapse in markets across the world. Roger Trapp reports.

Given the combination of turmoil in the Far East and the potential impact from planned mergers within the Big Six, it would not be surprising if trainee accountants were worried about the world into which they are qualifying.

In fact, though, recruitment specialists - far from painting a bleak picture - are doing their best to be encouraging. In the words of Jeff Grout, managing director of the recruitment consultancy Robert Half and Accountemps, the issue is still that there is a great shortage of "qualified accountants".

Though he accepted that developments in Asia and consolidation in the financial services and accounting industries were issues, he stressed that they had yet to make an impact. The Asia crisis, it was generally felt, had so far only hit a few institutions, while the spate of deals between investment banks did not seem to have diminished the demand for accountants.

As for the planned mergers between Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse on the one hand and KPMG and Ernst & Young on the other, it was still a case of "wait and see", he said. Moreover, even if there were a large exodus of people from the two organisations, many of them would seek positions in commerce.

James Wheeler, managing director of Hewitson-Walker, a consultancy specialising in contract positions, is similarly optimistic. Executives seemed to have returned from the Christmas and New Year break full of enthusiasm for new projects. Many of these involved information technology and often meant that accountants would be required in order to deal with the financial aspects.

"These days, a contract accountant is hired as much for IT skills as for accounting skills, because they are often sorting out IT projects," he said. Consequently, companies "all want the same people at the same time".

Though many of these jobs will be for experienced finance specialists, this heady situation - which Mr Wheeler is confident will last until Easter - spells good news for those just completing their examinations, too. "All levels of accounting skills are in short supply," he reported.

The root of the problem is the sharp reduction in the numbers of trainees taken on by the large accounting firms in response to the recession of the early Nineties. Top recruiters such as Coopers and KPMG are understood to have cut the numbers of new staff by half, to about 500. Recruitment specialists had expected the squeeze to be felt by the middle of the decade, but it took until last year, by which time many firms and their clients were caught up in the busiest period for work since the late Eighties. "There simply aren't enough junior people around. They are all doing very long hours," added Mr Wheeler.

With uncertainty over the fate of the mergers due to drag on until the summer, there are few signs of the situation being relaxed. Which is good news for those at the start of their careers.

Indeed, gaining that once-all-important training contract with a top firm is no longer vital. It is possible for graduates to pursue a career in accountancy by starting with a bank, a company or even a lesser firm. As one recruitment consultant said, the key thing is to get the letters after your name - and it does not matter a lot which firm you are with at the time.

Indeed, as the large firms get even larger, many people thinking of accountancy as a career may feel that they do not want to go down this route. "A lot of candidates have decided that the large corporate life doesn't suit them."

Since they are in a seller's market, with some fancy salaries on offer, newly-qualifieds are advised to conduct audits on themselves, in order to balance their strengths and weaknesses.

However, it will probably take a tough-minded young accountant working all hours in public practice to say "no" when a head-hunter calls up offering a straightforward-sounding position in an American bank at twice the salary plus bonus.