Accountancy & Management: New recruits given a more business-like approach to training: Would-be accountants are entering a profession in the process of change. Roger Trapp looks at what this year's graduates can expect

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The Independent Online
IN THE next few weeks the latest generation of keen young graduates will begin swapping their jeans and T-shirts for suits and preparing for life as accountants.

But it is a changing world that they are entering. For a start, accountancy is - as leading figures in the profession continually point out - no longer a job for life. Nor is it the preserve of the dull and grey; while such people may have a role, they are unlikely to make it to the very top.

And this more commercial attitude is also affecting the way that they are trained. In May 1990 the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales published a new syllabus that, while it will not be fully implemented until 1994, is already under way.

Many of the graduates who started work last autumn will already have gone through the new foundation course - the method by which those without degrees in accountancy are introduced to the subject - and those starting now will be studying for the first intermediate exam (replacing the professional examination I) to be held next May. The new final, taking over from PEII, comes in the following July.

The aim, according to the institute, is to stress more the business elements of accountancy. While insisting that the training has never been purely theoretical, Phil Armitage, the director of education and training, accepted that in the past it was geared more towards tax and auditing at the expense of the broader business applications now expected.

This recognition of the environment in which accountants are working is also a factor behind the next stage of the institute's training reforms.

For the past two or three years (latterly in league with its Scottish and Irish counterparts and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) it has been working on developing competence-based standards for the profession. This is in line with what the Department of Employment is encouraging for training of all kinds, and fits in with the current calls for National Vocational Qualifications.

Having established the basis for assessing competence, the working party is about to enter a new phase of assessing the possibility of dropping traditional examinations for a form of practical test. Mr Armitage said: 'So far, we have had a feasibility study. Now we want to get something concrete to work on.'

Meanwhile, the institute has also added the Post Office and the pharmaceuticals group Fisons to the group of organisations outside public practice that are authorised to train accountants.

One of the main triggers for this departure is the fact that more than half the membership is working outside public practice, Mr Armitage said. 'But there is also a recognition that these organisations are just as capable of providing the skills necessary to train accountants as the public practice firms.'

And this is not all. The mixture of study and on-the-job work experience that has for years been a characteristic of accountancy training has lately seen a challenge. New recruits can in theory choose between the old-style 'linked-study' courses and the newer 'front-end loaded' approach - though in practice their employers exert more than a little influence.

For example, Arthur Andersen's head of training, Ray Currie, said the firm's London practice was committed to the new approach. He said the firm generally encouraged those of its recruits who had not dealt with figures for a long time to get into 'a numbers environment' before being thrown into an intensive course. But otherwise it was greatly in favour of the full-time course route on the grounds of results. Although others say there is no real conclusive evidence about success rates, it claims a significant improvement in pass rates since going over to the new system in 1988.

'With Link, it is very, very difficult to manage the balance of the demands of private study and your employers and a social life. It's very easy for a junior to tire himself or herself out. They may well prefer working long hours to the alternative of stopping at 5.30 or 6pm to go back to some fairly dry home study.'

But at smaller operations this intensive approach is less popular. For instance, Casson Beckman, a third-tier London-based firm that typically has 30 students at some stage of their three-year training, is generally in favour of front-end loading. But Paul Ginman, the firm's technical partner, said that 'where the course is all full-time, it's very disruptive'.

Even at Price Waterhouse, Paul Masters, training partner, sees problems with fitting the intensive training in with the needs of the firm. In particular, he noted that the initial courses taking place over the winter months coincide with the firm's busiest period.

But all are agreed that - whatever training approach is taken - the workload is greater than is desirable.

This is partly due to the growing complexity of business generally and accountancy in particular. It can also be attributed to the need for trainee accountants to satisfy the professional bodies that they have some knowledge of all aspects of the job - irrespective of the reality.

There are, for instance, at present no optional papers. In the large firms, in particular, it is unusual to work in more than one specialist area after the initial training period. Accordingly, there are moves afoot to allow students to specialise in one discipline for their qualification.

But in the meantime, today's recruits must labour on in a highly competitive environment. Institute figures indicate that the numbers being recruited dropped 10 per cent last year as a result of the downturn in business, and a further 20 per cent cut is expected this year. Although Mr Armitage stressed that these reductions were not as drastic as the cuts in other management training schemes, he accepted that they enabled prospective employers to be even more choosy.

And with the recession reducing the demand for the services of qualified staff in industry and public practice alike, they cannot even reassure themselves with the knowledge that if they make the grade they will be set for life.

(Photograph omitted)