GRADUATES IN FINANCE; A slippery route to riches

The old adage that 'accountants are never out of work' may have taken a battering, but for those who make the grade, the rewards have never been bigger, reports Roger Trapp
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In recent years, the expectations of young people considering careers in finance have taken a downturn. The recession of the early 1990s for the first time brought widespread redundancies to the accountancy profession and challenged the adage on every parent's lips, that "accountants are never out of work". Equally, the shake-out in the City convinced many that the days of Porsches and champagne amounted to a 1980s' phenomenon that was never likely to be repeated.

Yet here we are a few years later, looking on as star traders collect six-figure bonuses and contribute to a country-house boom, while employers of accountants seek to counter their over-zealous job-shedding by ratcheting up salaries.

In the words of Graham Palfery-Smith, managing director of the recruitment consultants Harrison Willis, "the prospect of a 'merry-go-round' of newly qualified accountants at the end of January has been created by a market desperately short of bright young candidates".

That view is echoed by Hays Accountancy Personnel, which sees the feelgood factor as boosting some salaries by nearly 10 per cent. The company's managing director, Denis Waxman, believes that the overall better-than- inflation pay rises and sharp increases in certain sectors are indicative of employers' readiness to pay premium rates for the best people.

But the message constantly being driven home is that, while strong academic qualifications are a prerequisite for success, pure technical prowess is no longer likely to be enough. While it is true that many institutions are hiring people with postgraduate degrees in such complex areas as mathematics in order to bolster their teams developing derivatives and other financial instruments, financial organisations as a whole are keener to obtain well-rounded individuals.

Hays Accountancy Personnel points out that senior accountants, for example, are increasingly expected to be good communicators and people managers - as well as having all the traditional accounting expertise.

Recruitment consultants offer the encouraging message that, even though finance may not be as safe a career as it once was, substantial salaries are there for those who make it all the way to the top of the profession. Finance directors of large organisations in London can earn between pounds 80,000 and pounds 100,000, while FDs of very large companies can obtain much more. Even public-sector salaries for senior financial staff can approach six figures.

Nevertheless, it is not an easy progression. Newly qualified accountants point out that gaining those qualifications is only the start. They then face hard decisions about their career - and often have to cope with management problems.

One young accountant was recently quoted as saying that she thought employers should improve their appraisal systems in order to show a more clearly structured career path, providing a better focus for each individual.

But, then, one trend that looks set to survive the end of the recession is the enthusiasm on the part of employers for temporary and contract employment.

Once regarded as a short-lived expedient for companies lacking the confidence to hire full-time employees, it is now obviously here to stay for a while, at least. Organisations see the policy as a way of dealing with the peaks and troughs that often occur in financial departments or as a means of trying out would-be permanent staff before they are finally taken on.

And those working on these short-term contracts are not totally against the idea. Whereas in the past most of them were travelling Australians and New Zealanders, home-grown Brits are increasingly joining their ranks - for the variety and greater freedom the work provides.

This is a trend that has been helped by the general move towards short- term working and away from jobs for life. But, of course, success is dependent on individuals taking control of their own careers.