Accountancy & Management: Getting away from the apprentice attitude: As jobs become scarcer and more keenly fought for, accountancy firms are demanding more of those graduates they do hire. Roger Trapp reports

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The Independent Online
FORGET FOR a moment all those high-profile accountants from the big firms who have attracted public scorn for collecting fat fees for insolvency work or for apparently not noticing while their audit clients headed for the financial rocks. And spare a thought for the young people at the start of a career in what used to be the most staid of professions.

Over the past weekend thousands will have have received the results of their PE 2 examinations. For those who have failed this is desperation time. But things are bad enough for those who have struggled over the hurdle to reach qualification. The chill wind that has blown through accountancy has brought home the message that even total success is no guarantee of a job. The accounting firms are not hanging on to so many of their students because they are seeing fewer leave to go into industry. And commerce is increasingly conscious that it is in a buyer's market and need not accept anything but the very best.

Dulce Merritt, managing director of Reed Accountancy, one of the largest of the accountancy recruitment firms, says: 'Gone are the days when employers competed for each newly qualified chartered accountant.' Now, applicants have to fight against contemporaries with qualifications from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants or the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants in addition to slightly older people who have been made redundant by accountancy practices over the past two years.

Perhaps the biggest change, Ms Merritt suggests, is that training in one of the big six firms is no longer an automatic passport to the top jobs.

'Employers feel that the narrow experience of auditing huge corporations which this often entails does not provide candidates with the survival skills currently in demand - and Cima or certified candidates are winning out.'

Not only employers in industry are taking this view. The accountancy firms themselves show every sign of wanting something more from their recruits than competence at auditing. Acknowledging how much things have changed since the quasi-Civil Service approach of 25 years ago, senior partners today talk of taking technical ability for granted and look for commercial nous, personality and, above all, drive in the people they want to join them around the partners' table.

In some cases, these ideas are rather vague. But Grant Thornton - one of the cluster of firms just outside the big six - has taken the concept further than most and radically changed the way it recruits its staff. Although this move is partly an attempt to position the firm in one particular area of the market at a tough time for the so-called middle ground, it could nevertheless lead the way to a fundamental rethink of the way accountants are trained.

Ann Baldwin, executive partner at Grant Thornton, says the partner trainee programme she has been responsible for developing is closely tied to the business the firm is in. Though the likes of Stoy Hayward might dispute it, it claims to be the country's leading adviser to the growing owner-managed business. As such, it has three main divisions - business advice, audit/investigation and insolvency.

'Our partners have got to deliver much more rounded business advice. Our clients are not companies with enormous boards of directors and they want lots of day-to-day advice,' she says. 'And from this you start to get an idea of the sort of people you need to do that.'

One of the first things Mrs Baldwin and her colleagues decided was that the business they were pitching themselves at did not require great amounts of 'audit fodder'. Consequently the firm did not need to keep up its commitment to taking on vast numbers of graduate trainees. Rather, from this autumn it has significantly reduced the size of its graduate intake. But those it does take on will be trained with the main aim of reaching partnership in seven years. At the same time, the rather pedestrian tasks formally undertaken by graduates are being given to a new class of recruit, school-leavers with A-levels known as accounting trainees.

The idea, Mrs Baldwin says, is that what one person finds boring will be stimulating to another. But she does not see the two schemes as mutually exclusive. She hopes that some of the trainees will show sufficient promise to switch over to the fast track.

Although clearly enthusiastic about the departure, she is adamant that it stems from practical need and changing attitudes as much as theory. Not only does she see the traditional emphasis on audit skills as unsuited to a firm like Grant Thornton with large numbers of entrepreneurial clients, she also feels that today's graduates are more aware of business than their predecessors and therefore more likely to be frustrated by the customary training.

She says that the firm is aiming high and will take fewer than it wants if it cannot find graduates who are genuinely committed to business, and display the personal and other skills it is looking for. This year the firm took in 35, compared with the 50-60 that it would normally be seeking, itself a sharp reduction from the 180 it used to recruit. But she claims it has struck a chord - with more than 80 per cent accepting offers made to them in the first year (though this level is likely to be influenced by the effects of the recession on graduate employment). There is concern, though, that the first year of the programme has seen the proportion of women selected slip from about 50 per cent to about 20 per cent.

The scheme also introduces more science to the selection process than had generally been the case. In particular, all graduate recruits have to go through heavy sessions at assessment centres staffed by the firm's partners, personnel directors and outside consultants. There, they play business games, undergo various tests and are repeatedly interviewed in an attempt to determine how suitable they are to dispense business advice and to quickly play key roles in the development of the firm.

This is achieved by removing much of the drudgery usually associated with accountancy training - the apprentice attitude, Mrs Baldwin calls it. So instead of being consigned to photocopying and similar tasks, the young recruit is given a grounding in the main heads of the Institute of Chartered Accountants' examinations blended with practical aspects of business advice.

'It includes traditional things like understanding accounts, but also things like assessing the business needs of a client,' she says. With 40-odd offices, Grant Thornton has the problem of ensuring that trainees receive the same training wherever in the country they are based. To deal with this, it has produced a manual for each level - and there is no automatic promotion. Recruits only move to the next stage if they have satisfied the trainers they are competent in the relevant area.

Mrs Baldwin is aware that if the training is as adventurous and as good as she says, business - and even other firms - will come hunting for recruits. After all, the Grant Thornton training does sound as if it offers the hands-on experience that Reed's Ms Merritt says is so vital in today's job market. But she insists that that is something she does not mind living with. 'Our challenge is to produce jobs that are so interesting that people will stay with us. Our great advantage is that people have access to a great range and variety of business.'

(Photograph omitted)