UK accountancy firms double down on school recruits amid ‘talent war’
The UK accountancy market is increasingly turning to school leavers without university education in an effort to offset the sector’s widening skills gap, according to Suki Allday, chief people officer at haysmacintyre.
“In recent years, we are seeing a shift in the industry to turn away from the graduate-first approach which excludes a huge number of talented young adults from a career in which they don’t need a degree to prosper,” Allday says.
Since introducing its school leaver scheme in 2011, haysmacintyre has increased the number of school leavers recruited year-on-year, with the programme now constituting 9.5% of all new hires.
The firm has said that it is aiming to continue growing this number in the coming years in a bid to navigate the increasingly competitive talent landscape.
“The war for talent is continuing to hit the accountancy sector, and competition is fierce,” Allday adds.
According to research published by Search Recruitment Group in 2022, the skills gap in the accounting and professional services sector stands at 22%.
Similarly, job board network Broadbean Technology reported a 36% drop in the number of applicants for accountancy sector roles between June 2021 and June 2022.
Grant Thornton UK, another mid-market accounting firm, has also sought to maintain the flow of incoming talent by recruiting school leavers.
The firm, named in the top 10 of the Department for Education’s top 100 apprentice employers in 2022, announced last November that it had more than doubled the number of trainees joining the firm’s school leaver programme compared to the previous year.
It has also said that it aims to reach a 50:50 split in its trainee hire population between university graduates and those joining straight from school, characterising this as a shift in focus towards potential and strengths rather than academic profile.
“Increasing the firm’s school leaver intake allows us to tap into a broader and more diverse talent pool and engage with schools in our local communities,” says Richard Waite, head of resourcing at Grant Thornton UK.
“Diversity in all its forms is a competitive advantage for all organisations. Our school leavers bring a quality mindset and diverse ways of thinking to what we do.”
Fellow accounting mid-market player Kreston Reeves has also taken radical measures to aid recruitment efforts in recent years – in July 2022, the practice officially became an Ofsted-recognised training provider.
The education watchdog awarded Kreston Reeves a ‘good’ rating – a first for the UK accounting industry.
“Having that [Ofsted] recognition, it’s fundamentally about people. We’re very invested in making sure that we support and nurture our talent,” the firm’s HR director Sharn Manku told Accountancy Age at the time.
“I think it’s a true testament that we have a talent pathway. Some may not want to become partners, so it’s about understanding our people. That’s why having in-house training is valuable. It allows us to really nurture our talent.”
The value and increasing lack of ground-level talent has also been acknowledged by government officials in a February 2023 report on higher level and professional skills and apprenticeships.
The report, published by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Accounting for Growth in collaboration with CIMA, illustrates the influence of the financial and professional services sectors on the UK economy, and offers 18 recommendations for how the apprenticeship scheme could be altered to better serve them.
Among the recommendations are an insurance scheme to help SMEs cover the cost if an apprentice fails or drops out, encouraging companies to advertise specifically for ex-apprentices, and promoting initiatives that enable younger workers to support older employees to update their digital skills.
“Boosting the number of apprentices is essential to opening up access to the accountancy profession and providing the skills that the UK financial sector needs if it is to continue to thrive,” said John Howell MP, chair of the APPG, in a statement.
“Apprenticeships provide a much needed non-university based route into the accountancy profession,” added Andrew Harding, chief executive, management accounting, at CIMA.
This is echoed by haysmacintyre’s Allday, who argues that the recruitment of school leavers allows access to the profession for those who may have lacked the means to do so, and that this in turn serves the firm’s interests.
“This [the recruitment of school leavers] exposes the firm to a range of individuals from different backgrounds, all bringing a fresh perspective and news ideas that can only improve how the company operates.
“A diverse workforce is also a true reflection of a diverse client base and helps us continue to support their needs as best as possible.”