Practice careers guide: don’t fly too soon

Practice careers guide: don't fly too soon

Many trainees stay little longer at an accounting firm than it takes to get their qualification, but as our reporter explains, moving on too quickly may mean missing out

What can a career in practice offer? Well, how about an interesting and
varied working life, superior development opportunities, reward based on merit,
and a healthy work-life balance?

In the past, newly qualified accountants who trained in a professional firm
have often been only too keen to jump straight out of the practice’s door and
into the welcoming arms of commerce and industry. Now, however, increasing
numbers are recognising there are good career prospects in practice, not least
because firms are working hard to offer attractive development opportunities.

For example, Nikki Mitchell, a Deloitte audit partner, has led a talent
management project within audit to encourage newly qualified staff to consider a
future career in practice. The programme has been shortlisted for the Personnel
Today awards in the talent management category.

Mitchell understands that young qualifieds can be easily tempted away when
recruitment consultants dangle attractive short-term packages in front of them.

‘I thought it was important to educate these trainees about what Deloitte can do
for them to help them understand the breadth and depth of opportunities
available,’ she says.

Mitchell led the development of a programme called ‘Your successful career at
Deloitte’, which makes contact with trainees around 18 months into their
training contract. It consists of four key ‘interventions’ ­ events where
individuals can focus on their career development needs and opportunities. The
programme draws on the experiences of alumni, who talk to staff about their own
career decisions, as well as those of Deloitte partners.

Mitchell says: ‘We get the partners to talk about their career paths and the
decisions they made. There are no questions that are taboo. We get people in
practice to talk about practice, and then by bringing in the alumni, people can
compare and contrast. We explore all the differences. We do it from a monetary
point of view too. We share the salaries they can expect to get as they progress
through the organisation and ultimately as they get to partner. We recognise
that not everybody wants to stay on in practice and become an audit partner, but
allowing them to talk about these things in a very open and honest environment
has been a revelation to some people.’

Deloitte has conducted research into the career progress of alumni, with the
findings providing useful input into the opportunities debate.
Similarly, PricewaterhouseCoopers last year appointed an independent body to
research the career experiences of alumni in the US and UK.

‘We found that people had done well, but those people who had stayed that
little bit longer had done better in terms of earnings and progression,’ says
Charles Macleod, head of recruitment at PwC. ‘It showed it wasn’t a one-sided
deal. If people stayed 18 months to two years after qualification they would
benefit from career progression, and we would benefit too. It’s reciprocal.’

Encouraged by these findings, the firm is focusing with renewed energy on how
it can offer development opportunities to its newly qualifieds.

‘In terms of retention, the big thing for newly qualifieds is to try and
deliver on the promise of opportunity that you have made,’ Macleod says. ‘If you
start talking to them at qualification, it’s too late, so we are engaging
earlier than that ­ before they come out of contracts, and talking about what
they want to do. We start to paint a picture and start to move them around the
firm. We are trying to make sure we are delivering more on the mobility and
opportunity promise.’
This has led to the creation of a new programme for international secondments,
and a more managed UK secondment programme, moving people between business units
and out to clients. PwC has also introduced a diploma, developed with London
Business School, as a supplementary qualification that staff can study for.

‘We have also been much more transparent about people’s rewards, and have a
more flexible reward programme,’ Macleod says. He believes the changes have
already improved staff retention rates. ‘Our turnover is down to about 10%,’ he
BDO Stoy Hayward has also been enjoying a low staff turnover rate of around 7%.
‘We spend a lot of time and effort on trying to make the employment proposition
attractive,’ says David Campbell, an audit partner with HR responsibility. ‘We
have tried to make sure people get promoted on merit. People understand there is
plenty of opportunity for them to grow. There are examples of people who move
through quickly.’

Personnel development is supported through traditional mentoring, where staff
discuss career development and performance issues with a partner or manager.

‘We also offer all staff access to a coach, who may not be in their area of the
business,’ Campbell says. ‘Coaching can cover all kinds of lifestyle issues, the
bigger picture ­ do they want a family, to live by the sea?’

As with a Big Four firm, international experience is available at BDO. ‘Our
secondment programme has doubled in size since last year in terms of the number
of people we are sending out,’ says Emma Sabin, resourcing manager at BDO.

One individual recently went to Beijing in China. Secondments to clients are
also easily available.

For the last two years, BDO has also been running a post-qualified
development (PQD) programme, which can last from 18 months to two years. ‘It is
aimed at people within 12 months of qualification and is to enable generalist
managers and partners to be developed,’ explains Sabin. Individuals might spend
successive six-month stints in non-audit areas such as corporate finance,
business recovery and forensics.

‘There’s a growing realisation that the partners of the future here are going
to need a broader skill set than just mainstream audit,’ Campbell says. ‘PQD
enables people to get that wider range of experience in a relatively short per
iod of time.’ The programme and its timing can be tailored to meet individual

‘Our overarching desire is that people gain this experience at some point in
their career,’ Campbell explains. As BDO’s staff surveys show, the result
appears to be a fulfilled workforce proud of the firm and their career choice.

Award-winning employers:

Efforts by accountancy firms to make themselves attractive employers are being

The Big Four all did well in the SundayTimes2006 Best Big Company To Work For
survey. Deloitte were placed seventh, Ernst &Young 12th and
PricewaterhouseCoopers came 14th.
The category covers organisations with more than 5,000 employees and rankings
are based on employee responses to surveys.

However, KPMG claimed the crown, winning first place overall. The firm also
came top in six out of eight categories:

How employees feel about the organisation’s senior management.

How they feel about stress, pressure and work-life balance.

My team
Feelings about immediate colleagues.

Fair deal
How happy staff are with pay and benefits.

Giving something back
How much companies are thought by staff to put back into society and their local

Personal growth
The extent to which staff feel they are stretched and challenged by their job.

In terms of AccountancyAge’s own awards, BDO Stoy Hayward has an
impressive record, winning the Employer of the Year accolade in both 2004 and
2005.Last year the firm rated particularly highly in terms of the numbers of
employees who said they were proud to work there.

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