Accountancy: Multiple choice for the newly qualified

For future high fliers, the learning doesn't stop when the exams are over, writes Paul Gosling
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Accountants who have just qualified have been warned not to relax. Only by throwing themselves into further training, and choosing their first post-qualification job carefully, will they give themselves the prospect of a high-flying career.

Denis Waxman, managing director of Hays Accountancy Personnel, says that the first two jobs an accountant takes may determine the rest of his or her career. "If you take a job because of its salary you may find it very difficult later to move into something which gives any increase in salary or a more mainstream role. Sometimes a high salary is on offer because you are not part of the mainstream."

Smaller organisations, such as private companies, may offer good starting salaries, but fail to provide a strict accountancy working environment, warns Mr Waxman. Without relevant work experience it will be more difficult later to get a better job taking advantage of qualifications.

"There is a tendency for people to jump into something for two or three years assuming they will then be able to focus on what they want to do. To some extent your career is determined by what you do in your first three years after qualification."

Lesley Hateley, corporate planning manager for the Forward Trust Group, adds the warning that newly qualified accountants must not allow themselves to relax into thinking that the hard work is now over. "A professional qualification in isolation is no longer a successful ticket for entry into an organisation, or indeed for career progression within an organisation.

"My advice to all newly qualified accountants is to not stop learning once their professional examinations have been completed. Take advantage and push to extend any of the 'softer' training that an organisation provides in areas such as presentation skills, leadership and management. Equally, keep up-to-date in both technical and general business developments through reading, training and practical experiences."

Accountants are increasingly being integrated into more general management responsibilities, and those accountants whose training has recognised this are in a stronger position to win the best jobs in commerce and industry.

Charlotte Moar is operations accountant for Allied Signal Automotive, having previously worked with the Sadler's Wells Theatre. She has just qualified with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.

Ms Moar believes that her CIMA qualification is well suited for the business environment. "I think within the next year or so I will be a financial controller - I want to stay in industry. CIMA is absolutely brilliant for that. They have positioned themselves to be an alternative to an MBA [Master of Business Administration], giving a broad-brush management training, and a broad feel for how a business works."

Mr Waxman agrees that a CIMA qualification has become highly marketable when trying to get a job in industry, not least because so much of the training is based within industry. Chartered accountants are still greatly sought after, not only for accountancy practices, but also for prestige jobs in the city and in the media.

Breakdown in merger discussions between the accountancy institutions means that they have now accepted they will remain independent for the foreseeable future, and are accordingly adopting a more competitive attitude against each other, heavily promoting their own qualifications, making it more important that students choose the right body to study with.

The Chartered Association of Certified Accountants (ACCA) claims that its qualification has gained greater respect in recent years, and that it is attracting students away from the Institute of Chartered Accountants. The ICA responds that ACCA's qualification is no longer widely respected, and that public practices are looking for people with an ICA qualification, and that industry wants CIMA-qualified candidates.

John Seear, head of the Chartac recruitment service within the ICA, says the vast majority of newly qualified accountants will go into public practice. "A very select few will go into banks or corporate finance, for very sexy salaries of pounds 30,000 or more, but these are the exceptions."

Mr Seear says that those who have just gained an ICA qualification who have now decided they want a career in industry should make the move within three years of qualifying: "Later than that they may move to become deputy controller of internal audit somewhere, but they may never become a finance director of a major PLC."

Andrew Harding, training manager of ACCA, says that most of its newly qualified members will continue to work for their current employers who have been training them. This includes increasing numbers of public sector organisations.

Mr Harding believes the adoption of resource accounting by government departments means that ACCA qualifications are now in greater demand in Whitehall. "ACCA training meets the needs of financial control as well as the old budgetary needs. Some local authorities have gone completely over to ACCA."

The best news for the newly qualified accountants is that they are in demand - with those who bring other skills, especially languages, attracting the highest salaries.

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