Job market uncertainty gives accountants a headache

ACCOUNTANTS might be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief as economies are righting themselves and financial services are snapping back into shape. Yet a barrage of conflicting data indicates all is not well in the jobs market, which has underlying implications for the industry.

Earlier this month, eFinancialCareers eagerly directed jobseekers to the Big Four, publishing the optimistically titled article: “Here’s how to find hundreds of London financial services jobs that lack applicants AND pay cash bonuses.”

It claimed that the accounting giants were hiring hundreds of staff between them; this came after figures from last September, which indicated as many as 2,000 employees would be taken on board in the coming year.

This fabled flood of jobs has not materialised, though, and professionals are in bewilderment as a barrage of conflicting data first suggests employers are throwing themselves at candidates’ feet then warns of spiralling redundancy and a nightmarishly competitive field.

The jobs website recently published data showing spectacular first-quarter growth in sectors such as equities – up 150% on the previous three-month period – and research. This report came hot on the heels of another which indicated that equities jobs were under threat at a host of major banks after large-scale hiring in 2010 translated to disappointing returns.

Financial services giants such as UBS, BarCap and Nomura were all said to be at high risk of forthcoming redundancies, with equities positions the first to go as businesses struggled to keep costs low.

Digitisation is throwing more uncertainty into the mix: posts are becoming less labour-intensive thanks to increasingly advanced computer programming.

Earlier this month, Gary Cohn of Goldman Sachs told the Sarah Bernstein banking conference that his equities business had tripled in the last 11 years, while the associated workforce had halved thanks to digitisation. Experts predict the same will happen in fixed income, currency and commodities trading as big hitters such as Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank invest heavily to streamline operations.

Accountants may not worry about being usurped by a computer but evidence suggests that, despite optimism, finding a new position is no mean feat.

Snail’s pace
eFinancialCareer’s second-quarter jobs barometer showed that accounting and finance was the worst performing sector within investment banking; job opportunities grew 9% from the previous three-month period and 44% year-on-year, compared with a 125% leap in research and capital markets vacancies on the 2010 figures.

Other factors could also prevent job-seeking accountants from popping the champagne just yet: City recruiter Astbury Martin warned that new vacancies slipped 16% year-on-year in April. Chief operating officer Mark Cameron says that the royal wedding “had a tangible impact”, adding: “This year had a very unusual pattern of bank holidays anyway, but the extra day for the Royal wedding really did compound problems.”

Further sources paint yet another picture: the Morgan McKinley London employment monitor for April showed the number of jobs available rose 15% year on year, while the number of new professionals entering the market sank by 17%. One month later, prospects were gloomier; May’s report revealed 29% more jobseekers entered the market compared with 2010, while vacancies fell 19% on the previous month.

Coming at it from a different angle, real estate giant BNP Paribas claimed that financial services will be hunting for an additional 1.6m sq ft of space in Central London over the next three years – four times the size of the spanking new Shard at London Bridge.

So the data presented is confusing. Accountants might think themselves lucky that at least some of the indicators are on the up despite overall wobbly performances and lacking long-term confidence.

One continent where professionals should be guaranteed a sparkling career is Asia: financial services providers are increasingly moving east in a bid to cut costs and best exploit the opportunities presented by its booming economies.

Goldman Sachs recently announced a 1,000-strong recruitment scheme in Singapore, with corresponding job losses in the US and possibly London. The island nation is well placed to serve growing Asian markets, has excellent transport links and, crucially, its corporation tax is set at 17%, which is much more attractive than the 40% or 26% in the US and UK respectively.

Accountants and investment bankers alike could therefore have to set their sights on the east if they are to guarantee job security. The Big Four are advertising a host of vacancies in Singapore and there is no doubt that emerging economies such as China and India hold a wealth of prospects.

When it comes to accountancy, fortune might well favour the brave.

Related reading