Few berths across the Channel

Not so long ago, it seemed as if every accountant was heading east to cash in on the huge demand for financial skills in the countries of the former eastern bloc. The situation was doubly fortunate for the big British firms that were the chief source of supply, because it coincided with a sharp down-turn in their domestic fortunes. Without that new avenue of work - which admittedly does not always result in great profits - they would have had to respond to the recession of the early Nineties with much more dramatic cutbacks than they did.

Now, though projects in eastern Europe remain, there is less mention of it - simply because the domestic market is rejuvenated. A survey published last week showed that in the buoyant UK job market, public practice is particularly short of the recruits it needs. This means that not only are the best-qualified accountants encountering few problems in obtaining jobs; they are also being wooed with huge pay rises. However, those keen to spread their wings over continental Europe find that the job market is patchy.

Jeff Grout, managing director of Robert Half, the firm of financial recruitment specialists that published last week's survey, says that this was because the economies of the Continent were generally not as buoyant as Britain's. "The most sluggish is France. You could argue that Paris is still coming out of recession, rather than being in a post-recessionary boom," he says, adding that pay rises there are accordingly "pretty flat".

In other parts - such as Germany and southern Europe - the situation is not as bad, but there is still not the level of activity being reported in the UK.

Inga Muylaert, of the Brussels office of a rival consultancy, Robert Walters Associates, tells a similar story of generally slower continental growth. However, she points out that things are busier in Brussels and in Amsterdam, at least partly as a result of the introduction of "co-ordination centres", designed to lure the headquarters of corporate operations with fiscal advantages.

Pointing out that the term "accountant" is confined to bookkeepers in most parts of mainland Europe, she adds that in those areas there are so many opportunities for people experienced in financial analysis, corporate finance and strategy that her office is having to hire staff to cope with the demand.

However, she and her counterparts are becoming as selective as those in London in terms of the sort of people they will attempt to place with clients. "Before, the demand was more in terms of executors, whereas now we are looking for more creative people," she says.