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Why accountants are finding themselves at a loss

Professionals' salaries are failing to keep pace with inflation, despite growing demand for their services, says Martin Whitfield
A rise in demand for accountants has not been accompanied by an increase in salaries, according to a comprehensive survey of pay and benefits.

For the second year running, companies reported an increase in the headcount of their financial functions, particularly in the South-east, but salaries are not outstripping inflation. The average rise is 3.4 per cent.

"We are seeing the best job market since the Eighties," says Jeff Grout, managing director of Robert Half and Accountemps, which carried out the survey of more than 480 organisations. "But we cannot report a jobs boom."

Newly qualified accountants were the only ones to see the improvement in the jobs market reflected in their salaries, with pay increases up to double that of more senior colleagues.

Salaries in commerce, industry and finance for newly qualified accountants varied from pounds 18,500-pounds 23,500 in the South-west to pounds 25,000-pounds 28,000 in Greater London.

Mr Grout believes the reason for the failure for higher demand to trigger large increases is that there were still many people available and the biggest companies were continuing to make redundancies. Companies in the Midlands and on the South Coast, for example, cited "too many applications" as being one of their major recruitment problems.

Finance directors of a medium-sized firm (pounds 10m-pounds 100m turnover) could expect to be paid from pounds 32,000 to pounds 45,000 in the Midlands and North to pounds 40,000-pounds 80,000 in London.

Across-the-board inflation increases are becoming rare, apart from in the public sector and industry. Merit-based systems are the norm in other sectors, although a combination of merit and inflation-linked rise is often used.

Only 3 per cent of organisations reported a pay freeze, compared with 21 per cent a year earlier. Public practice rises averaged 4.6 per cent; finance 4.3 per cent; manufacturing 3.2 per cent; and public sector 2.8 per cent.

Temporary staff are increasingly being used to create a flexible workforce around a core team. Nearly two-thirds of firms used temporary workers (up from 57 per cent a year ago) and a large proportion employed temporary qualified staff. The average length of contract is 11 weeks.

Although temporary workers are being used flexibly, more firms were expecting to take on staff. Public practice and commerce were the most optimistic sectors. The most volatile sector was finance, where almost as many companies (18 per cent) predicted decreases as were expecting increases (25 per cent).

The survey, conducted in March and April, found a marked preference among companies for qualifications from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (63 per cent) over Chartered Accountants (38 per cent), although the reverse was the case among financial companies in London.

Recruitment is a province of the young. Employers showed a preference for candidates in their twenties (70 per cent), 54 per cent were willing to recruit those in their thirties, but only a handful would look at anyone over 40. Technical ability was the most valued skill, followed by experience and communication skills. The most influential personal characteristic was appearance, ahead of confidence, imagination and commitment.

Women make up nearly a quarter of qualified accountants. Most companies said they had equal opportunities policies, although fewer than half had a formal monitoring process.

The prevalence of bonus payments continues to expand, with 64 per cent of companies awarding some form of bonus, mainly performance-related. Schemes are most common in the finance sector and commerce, but are less widespread in public practice and in the public sector, where they are often seen as divisive.

The company car, the most widespread perk after a pension plan, isunder threat: 6 per cent of firm do not provide any company cars, while only 21 per cent of vehicles were available at a salary of under pounds 20,000.

Many accountants are being provided with a cash allowance instead of a car. This ranges between pounds 3,000 and pounds 6,000. Car parking, provided by three-quarters of firms, remains a common perk. The amount of study leave offered by most companies for part-qualified staff falls short of what is recommended by training agencies. A lack of pre-exam revision leave means many trainees use their holiday entitlement.

Managers in the finance sector complained of poor-quality applicants, while most recruiters had difficulty finding candidates with relevant experience.

'Accountancy Salary and Benefits Survey 1995', by Robert Half and Accountemps, is available free of charge from the company's offices.