Feeling good (if you can stand the hours)

Finance directors are well known for their tendency to pour cold water on any suggestions of a return to prosperity. But even they appear to be acknowledging that the feelgood factor that proved so elusive during the dying days of the Conservative government is back.

According to a survey published on 25 June, two-thirds of them believe that the future looks good or very good for their business in the next year. Only 1 per cent of the 450 finance directors polled are pessimistic, with the optimism particularly prevalent among small companies.

However, the recruitment consultancy Hays Accountancy Personnel points out in the report published a week ahead of New Labour's first Budget today, it is not all good news. Confirming what many have long suspected, the study says that employees are handling larger workloads with modest pay rises.

Denis Waxman, managing director of Hays Accountancy Personnel, says: "Although business is booming, everyone seems to be heeding lessons learnt during the recession, of minimising overheads and are making staff work harder rather than employing new people."

That is borne out in the finding that, although nearly half of companies have increased their head-counts over the past year, about 60 per cent - in both manufacturing and service industries - report that the amount of work per employee has gone up.

Moreover, nearly two-thirds say that pay rises for the rank and file have been limited to less than 3.5 per cent - though management has tended to fare somewhat better - 40 per cent getting rises of between 3.5 per cent and 4.4 per cent and the rest more than 4.5 per cent.

Few groups are more aware of the discrepancies than trainee accountants. According to another survey, by the recruitment consultants Harrison Willis in association with PASS magazine, there is widespread inconsistency in young accountants' pay. It found one part-qualified management accountant receiving pounds 50,000 and a car and a student chartered accountant part-way through the exam cycle with "a pitiful wage of pounds 5,000".

Even in the single area of central London, the survey, published last month, found student chartered accountants who have sat their final examinations earning anything between pounds 16,500 and pounds 25,000.

Graham Palfery-Smith, Harrison Willis chief executive, says: "The wide disparity in salaries certainly shows that some employers are exploiting trainees as cheap labour. However, what it perhaps more clearly indicates is that accountancy is no longer a guaranteed route to high earnings, but is rather a springboard to real success."