The accountancy industry is changing, and with it the role of the accountant and the skills they need to possess
Following his piece on jobs in accountancy, we spoke to Marcus Williams of Morgan McKinley about what it means to be working as an accountant now, and what the industry might look like in the future.
1. What job roles are we going to see more of in accountancy?
I think the business partnering roles: people who are commercially-minded and good at producing information and articulating what this means to certain people. With lots of change happening in the industry, senior people want consistent information and advice to help them best understand and adapt to this. With certain regulatory requirements and different reporting standards there is always a need for good technical accountants; there’s always going to be a high demand for CFOs and senior people that can produce quality and robust reporting.
Typically, we’ve seen certain jobs, in banks for example, being off-shored to European countries. For example, product controller positions in the banking world. There will always be demand for accountancy roles but they won’t necessarily always be in London because they could be based elsewhere and cost less. I don’t think you’ll see any area of finance gone, it will just be moved elsewhere.
2. Do you think everyone should have a flexible attitude towards their professional future?
If I think about when I first started in recruitment, people would spend a lot longer in a company – six or seven years – but now the norm with the CVs I see is that people are spending two or three years in a role before moving on. I think the trend of staying at one organisation for a long period of time is fizzling out because people want more change.
3. What do you think this change means for young people coming into the accounting industry?
Typically, junior people want change and flexibility. If I asked a candidate seven years ago what their priorities were when looking for a job, it would usually be money, whereas now the focus is definitely flexibility and the ability to work from home.
4. Do you think that this desire for flexible working is a reaction to higher expectations and more stress in our professional lives?
I think flexibility is just about moving with the times, for example giving more to employees who are pregnant or on parental leave. Employers are focusing more on retention of staff and don’t want to let good people go. People have become aware of businesses who are giving their employees flexible working and are therefore gravitating towards working for them.
If I was working for one company who wasn’t offering flexibility, like leaving early on a Friday or working from home one day a week, but a competitor was and I could do exactly the same job but get this flexibility then naturally I would be drawn to the other company. More and more organisations are clocking on to this and adopting flexible working policies now. People like remote working, people like independence, people want to be able to sit in a coffee shop and work. People want face time with clients outside of the office too.
5. How would you recommend people approach their manager to ask for flexible working?
If you’re using a recruiter like us, I would always see it as my duty to ask the client and then inform the candidate. It’s not a good idea to turn up to your first interview and ask if you can work from home. Some people do that! But the expectation if you’re straight out of university or going into a new job is that you’re hungry and want to get stuck in. You’re happy to work twelve hours a day. I would always advise not asking this question at your first interview, but do so a bit later down the line.
6. In what ways do you think regulations such as MTD, MiFID II, and GDPR will affect the accounting industry?
I think they will create more jobs because firms and companies will want more people who understand them and keep up with related developments. People who are specialist in areas such as MiFID II or reporting standards can ask for a salary premium because there aren’t that many people who can do these roles effectively. In particular, there are lots of projects going on around GDPR, so businesses are wanting specialists who can come in and help with processes around it.
7. Do you think these regulations have therefore played a part in changing the role of an accountant to be more focused on advisory and strategic responsibilities?
In terms of advisory, I would say many accounting roles are already very much focused on this, especially at Big Four firms. Accountants working for these firms are definitely getting more and more face time with senior people at different companies. I think in the past people saw regulation as a boring arm to finance compared to the others, but I think now that more and more new regulation comes in, people have picked up on how if they specialise in this area and get lots of experience in it, they can get a higher premium. I think it’s definitely becoming more popular.
8. What about Brexit? What is it going to do to the accounting industry?
At the moment, nothing has changed. If I look at our job volume, and compare it to last year, the jobs we’ve been sent by our clients has actually increased, which is interesting. This might be because people are getting ready for changes.
In terms of the impact, the only thing I can think of is people off-shoring things to different European countries, but in terms of whether it has affected the job volume and our clients who are accountants, I would say no. I think there are niche roles out there, especially in bigger businesses, which focus specifically on what Brexit is going to do but in general it’s business as usual at the moment.
9. What skills do accountants need now?
The perfect accounting candidate is someone who understands the technical side of accountancy, such as financial reporting, financial control, and financial standards like IFRS and UK GAAP but also an individual who understands the commercial aspects of it.
So it’s someone who knows how to produce a set of accounts as well as how to articulate this to senior stakeholders, explain what it means, and give recommendations for things they can do to improve certain systems or processes. The all-round accountant is what people are looking for more. There will always be a demand for certain specialist areas, but a lot of our clients this year have wanted that all-round accountant with the combined technical and commercial ability. When as a recruiter you know you’ve got both you’re pretty confident in selling that person to your client.
10. What advice do you give to individuals who want to move into accounting but haven’t decided on specifics like company, practice area, or sector?
I would suggest sending their CVs off to the Big Four first. Also, to have the ACA qualification is really good, not just for accountancy but also to prove that you’re able to complete it. The ACA compared with the ACCA and the CIMA is the more prestigious qualification. I think if you have that, whether you stay in accountancy or move elsewhere, it will look very impressive. Also the ACA can demand a higher rate sometimes because it involves training for longer and investing more.
To get into the Big Four you need good grades so if you have trained with one of those firms, people will know you are good academically. Some firms also sponsor you to study for a qualification while working. That’s a really good way of getting industry experience while studying, and plus they pay for you to do it.
Typically, there’s an expectation for accountants to have good excel skills and be able to deal with things like macros and use VBA to streamline certain processes. Some of our clients have even inputted a stage where candidates must do an excel test, and at times the candidate will not even be considered if they do not pass it.
11. How do you get a great entry-level accounting job?
People who go into accountancy usually study subjects like finance, economics, and business, though I have seen people who study languages then decide they want to go into accountancy. The main thing is make sure you get good grades. There is so much competition for someone looking for their first job, and the problem is that for someone who has just qualified and they’re looking for their first job in industry, their CV looks the same as so many others.
They’ve been to uni, got good grades, they’ve gone to one of the Big Four, and they have passed their ACA. How does a client know on paper who is good or not? This is where candidates must think about what gives them a competitive edge. This might be internships or secondments, or if you have worked on site at certain organisations that are relevant to the job or industry you are applying for this will be helpful.
12. What advice would you give to an individual wanting to move up from their first job into a higher role?
You always need to think about your value add. You need to show how you’ve improved something or you’ve reengineered something or changed something for the better, such as saving costs or time. Have a list of things you have done in your most recent role, and this will give you something to talk about as you move into your next challenge. Sometimes moving up can be competitive, in a bank for example where so many people are trying to progress, but in a small to medium sized firm you will have a good chance of progressing.
Good companies will not let good people go: a lot of firms are switched on when it comes to staff retention by giving them good financial rewards and flexibility, but another thing companies can do is offer great progression opportunities. Corporate Social Responsibility is massive now, for example getting employees to do charity work. In my firm, we get two days off a year to do charitable work.
I did a piece recently about the gender pay gap. By 4 April, every company of a certain size must release how much they pay their staff. It has created a lot of bad vibes internally, and I think this will create a lot of change overall. There’s going to be some movers and shakers, people will not settle for being paid less for doing the same role.