When it comes to the crunch accountants will always be in strong demand. Kate Hilpern reports on an industry that needs talented graduates whatever the economic outlook.

Good times ahead for accountants

Every cloud has a silver lining and the current credit crunch is no exception. For accountancy wannabes, there has never been a better time to join the profession. Employers not only report that they haven’t taken the recruitment hit that investment banking has, but that the recent turmoil is actually likely to lead to an increased demand for talent, at least in the short term. Indeed, as regulation sharpens the finance industry is seeing increased levels of auditing. More accountants also tend to be needed in advisory and strategic roles, says Tony Osude, head of learning and development at ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants).

“At times of greater financial risk, good accountants are needed to help manage the risk,” he explains. “It’s a time when you would certainly expect to see more accountants in areas such as organisational restructuring and insolvency and it’s a time when consumers of financial products – sophisticated consumers – are finding they need more advice than ever about these products.” Armed with the qualifications that you’ll be expected to study for as a trainee accountant, you can look forward to greater job stability in the long-term too, believes Sarah Shillingford, head of graduate recruitment at Deloitte. “The qualifications are very hard work and require a lot of dedication, but it’s exactly because of their status that they provide good job security,” she says.

In recent years, accountancy has become a far more people-facing role, says Shillingford. “People are often quite surprised to find that even as a trainee, they’re out and about meeting clients and working in teams of people where there is a high level of face to- face communication. Then there’s the peer group they join us with – those people inevitably become some of their best friends.” Other rewards of accountancy include the variety of the role – something that Safia Saeed, assistant manager in audit at KPMG, says she values. “One week, I might be working in shipping and the next week in chemicals. What I really like is the way you have to find out how each business works from the shop floor upwards, and you learn so much from that.”

Travel opportunities

Research from Robert Half Finance & Accounting reveals that the money isn’t bad either, with starting salaries for entry positions – such as assistant accountant – having risen by nearly 21 per cent between 2006 and 2007, with recent graduates now earning an average of £19,500 per annum. The so-called Generation Y – defined as those born after 1983 – is widely reported to be attracted to international opportunities in their career, and accountancy delivers here too. “I spent three months in Melbourne on a secondment, which was a fabulous opportunity,” says Caroline McPake, an auditing manager at Pricewaterhouse-Coopers. She adds that a benefit of working in accountancy is the number of women at high levels. “I mainly work for female leaders and that’s not something I see in my clients, where there are mostly male boards. I do feel lucky in that respect.” You don’t need an accountancy – or even related – degree to enter the profession. “I did biochemistry, even though I had a business career in mind – simply because I enjoyed the subject and it was a challenging degree,” says Kelly Maslin, a graduate accountant at Deloitte. “It never occurred to me that it would stand in my way.”

Nor should it, says Malcolm Ward, head of strategic planning and alignment at Grant Thornton. “In fact, I like to see something other than an accountancy degree among graduates because diversity is such a huge theme in accountancy now. Even at partner level, where we put our people through a battery of psychometric tests, we don’t look for numeracy skills above average. Accountancy is far more about communication skills – getting complex ideas across – than number crunching.” Keith Dugdale, global director of recruitment at KPMG, agrees. “The traditional image of accountants being geeky and introverted could not be further from the truth. We need people who can really make an impact when it comes to client and internal relationships.” Like most employers, he also looks for a genuine interest in business. “We don’t expect people to have detailed knowledge about the marketplace, but if you switch off the moment the Treasury is mentioned, or you have never thought to look at the financial press, this may not be the career for you.”

Big vs. small firms

While many people who decide on a career in accountancy strive to work for one of the Big Four (KPMG, Ernst & Young, PWC and Deloitte), others prefer the idea of a smaller company. “I wanted exposure to a larger portfolio of clients – where I might spend just a few days in each, rather than the possibility of working months at a time,” says Richard Britten, a graduate trainee at Saffery Champness. Meanwhile, others decide on a career in the public sector. “There is an overwhelming demand for accountants in the public sector at the moment. I think it’s because historically, there has been a shortage of good, qualified people,” says Faisal Khan, business development adviser at the CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy).

Regardless of where they work, many trainee accountants spend some time deciding what they want to do long term. As Rhonda Lusty, regional director of accountancy recruitment specialists Nigel Lynn explains: “Accountancy provides a route not only into financial management but also into more general business careers. Your qualification can lead to operational line management roles, business advisory or consultancy roles, and even a CEO or MD later on in your career – and for budding entrepreneurs, it gives excellent grounding for running your own business.”

For those who do decide to stay in accountancy, Lusty agrees that a credit crunch need not dampen career prospects. “In the larger accountancy firms, they move their talent around rather than downsizing. For instance, in some of the larger mergers and acquisitions teams the business has slowed right down. In the past, that would have resulted in a round of redundancies. Now the firms are keen to use this time to develop their staff further and are giving them the opportunities to take secondments in other business areas or to work in more buoyant markets abroad. “They are developing their future business leaders in ways that would never have arisen without the current market conditions.”