The new model bean counters

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Not so long ago, if you wanted to become an accountant, there was one qualification you set your heart on - chartered accountancy. Nowadays, things are not nearly so clear-cut.

The certified accountant qualification offered by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants still has its adherents, especially overseas. And the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy remains attractive to those seeking to become finance specialists in the public sector.

But the real gainer has been management accountancy, now the qualification of choice.According to a survey from the financial recruitment consultancy Robert Half, 59 per cent of organisations expressing a preference wanted people trained by Cima, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.

Success breeding success. As David Melvill,Cima's new president, says, "Members can be confident in the institute and in themselves. The qualification is very much in demand."

While still highly regarded, the qualification offered by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales has come under threat from both Cima and a flood of new MBA courses. Many observers saw the attempt to merge the two bodies in 1996 as the institute's response to that development.

Since the institute's members voted down the link-up, Cima has prospered while the stately institute has struggled to redefine itself. The rebuilding exercise has created a lean and focused organisation. But it was dealt a blow last week when the same conservative constituency at the institute blocked plans to reform the training programme.

In a nutshell, the institute leadership headed by Peter Wyman, chairman of the education and training committee, had proposed that students should be allowed to specialise during their training by opting for "electives" as well as a core in general accountancy.

This move was inspired by the Big Five accountancy firms, which want to steer their graduate recruits in particular directions from the start of their careers. It would also help smaller firms tailor training to the work that they do, which is different from that done by the big international firms, says David Chitty of medium-sized firm Chantrey Vellacott.

Mr Wyman and his colleagues are in talks with the 20 or so firms that train students for the institute exam in an effort to come up with a plan that will prevent the Big Five either setting their own training scheme or making more use of the already popular qualification offered by the Scottish institute.

Mr Melvill, meanwhile, is not complacent.The former Kodak manager has devoted much of his institute time on training. "We've spent a lot of time to make sure we're on the right lines in terms of the overall package," he says. "Over the past year or so, a number of things have been put in as a direct result of one-to-one sessions with students."

Cima focuses on management accountants, says Mr Melvill. But he is aware that the demand is for business managers. "When you are recruiting a Cima person you are not just recruiting an accountant or a financial person. You are recruiting a set of skills that can be applied anywhere across a business."