ON PAPER AT LEAST, those being spat out of the education system and taking their first tentative steps down their chosen career paths, face an unenviable task, as the number of young people who have been unemployed for more than a year hits a quarter of a million, according to figures published this month by the Commission on Youth Unemployment.
Despite the gloom, today's young accountants are surprisingly upbeat about their prospects and the accountancy world is thriving with fresh talent looking to grasp the many and varied career opportunities that it has to offer.
One thing that does appear to be changing is the expectations of candidates in terms of what they'll get out of the employment experience. It seems that candidates are no longer perhaps quite as "grateful" for the opportunity of working for a firm, or a company, as they perhaps once might have been.
Instead, many young accountants see it as much more of a two-way street, where both employer and employee look to extract the maximum value out of the experience. And that fact that job opportunities may be harder to come by as the economy struggles along is doing little to change that.
A report published last year by ACCA and human resource consultancy Mercer Generation Y: Realising the Potential highlighted what it described as an "über confident generation", who value security, but who are equally prepared to walk away if their career path is not being delivered.
Modern graduates, it says, have a clear vision for their professional lives and are demanding more from employers as they pursue their primary goals. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, young finance professionals of the 21st century are seeking increasingly aspirational and dynamic career paths, both inside and outside traditional mainstream finance careers.
Andrew Leck, head of ACCA UK, told Accountancy Age: "This research shows that young people want dynamic careers, and also want to use their finance training in broader business careers. The young finance professional of the 21st century has a confident and clear vision of their career progression, demands job security and is motivated by money."
Employers looking for good talent will still need to pay well for it. But increasingly candidates also want a good contractual package -money, work-life balance, and working for an attractive brand that reflects their own values.
"Values are increasingly important," agrees Nadim Choudhury head of career services at London School of Business & Finance, which offers ACCA and CIMA professional qualifications. "People are looking at capitalism slightly differently and there is a growing culture among young graduates of being drawn towards CSR."
So what do today's young accountants expect from their qualifications and employment experiences? Leck is adamant it's the flexibility of their careers that comes across, not just from his institute's research, but also anecdotally.
"When we engage with our young members, they talk about the importance of the qualification as they want to know where it will take them, what opportunities it will provide and is it globally recognised. Their career choice will be influenced by mobility and they are more likely to change employers more than previous generations as they feel that this will give them broader experience and give them access to range of opportunities," Leck says.
Grow with an employer
Melanie Dunnell, management accountant at the Antique Wine Company, is a case in point. The part-qualified accountant, who will sit her ACCA finals this year, says working for an employer who would allow her to grow was key. Similarly the ACCA qualification, she believes, gives her a better overview: "Ultimately I want to be able to say yes to any opportunity that comes my way," Dunnell says.
"There definitely seems to be bigger demand for people having some sort of leadership elements as part of their qualification," Choudhury adds. "When students are considering the sorts of companies they want to work for, they want to know what other opportunities will the company provide for me to grow professionally."
In particular, leadership, time management and assertiveness training and skills development are high on the list of requirements, Choudhury explanis. Going down the Big Four firm route to get an accountancy qualification still has strong appeal for many, he says, but it's definitely true that mid tier firms are having to really think about the incentives they offer to attract people.
The recession and ongoing financial uncertainty has helped propel accountancy to the forefront of career choices. "We don't know if some of the investment banks will be around in the long term but people will always need accountants," Choudhury adds.
30-year old Kavan Tankard, who qualified with AAT in 2002, is the owner of TaxAssist in Halifax, a franchise that he took over in 2010. In the last 18 months he has signed over 100 new clients and he believes there is real hunger among today's young accountants to do their own thing.
"I worked in a more traditional accountancy firm but it was stuffy and political. The way my clients like to work is more relaxed. Ultimately accountancy is a good career and it's a lot of hard work but the career makes it all worthwhile. I'm running my own practice with over 300 clients - the rewards are there."
The employers' part of the contract...
Despite a market supposedly flooded with candidates, one third of graduate recruiters failed to meet their recruitment targets in 2010/11 because of a lack of suitably skilled candidates, according to research published recently by The Association of Graduate Recruiters' (AGR).
The AGR study reiterates ACCA's view that students and graduates are increasingly looking to enter roles that allow them a better work-life balance, and are therefore choosing not to apply to organisations that might previously have been seen as employers of choice.
But employers also cited a lack of suitable candidates as the reason why they had struggled to recruit the right numbers of graduates. Recruiters said that the skill levels of applicants did not always meet requirements. Due to the shortage, respondents said that they had often found themselves trying to recruit from the same small pool of candidates, leading to a degree of candidate "drop-out".
One respondent, from the accountancy and professional services sector, said that in some cases quality candidates were being let down by the poor quality of their applications. "There's a bit of panic out there, so graduates are perhaps spending less time on their applications... If I had one key message to get across it would be, yes, there's competition, but just make sure that every single application they submit is the best they can possibly do".
Steve Bellamy, managing director of accountancy recruitment agency Findlay Cameron, who also sits on the executive council of the REC Accounting & Financial Service group, is adamant that for jobseekers keen to make a good impression, the age-old rules apply: "Where people fall down is they don't do their research -- look at their website, look at their financials and do a bit of analysis. It shows you're enthusiastic, interested and know what you're talking about.
Rachel Fielding is a freelance journalist
Image credit: Shutterstock
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