When accountants go to seed

Wanted: qualified accountant with 30 years’ experience. Have you ever seen
such an advertisement? Given the intensity of the current regulatory burden and
the growing skills shortage, you would think that accountants boasting a wealth
of experience would command a premium in the market.

At the same time, the shortfall in pension funds means people will need to
work for longer – even if the government does not follow recent Institute of
Director proposals to increase the retirement age to 70. Yet, every year, a
significant number of qualified accountants in their forties and fifties have to
leave the profession.

Naturally, some make a conscious choice to change career. But a number simply
cannot find work, despite their best endeavours. Even those sending off hundreds
of job applications may fail to get interviews. The situation isn’t made easier
by unhelpful recruitment agencies and job adverts specifying ‘qualified plus two
or three years’ PQE’ – in other words, accountants in their twenties.

Older candidates often complain that their professional bodies are no help in
the face of this crisis. Yet there is plenty that the institutes could do; a
good and logical starting point would be to quantify the problem.

Those in the upper age ranges – above 40, for instance – are the group that
needs to be addressed. But finding out the number affected is not as simple as
it sounds. Many who resign membership do not give a reason, and there is a
larger number who resign by withholding payment of their subscription and are
struck off.

What is the obsession with younger qualified accountants? For the agency and
the recruiter, they are a standard product, up-to-date because of recent
examinations, easy to fit into the departmental structure and perceived as
malleable, so they can readily take on an organisation’s culture.

The bodies reinforce this perception. They tell employers about the relevance
of their qualification, pointing to the coverage and high quality of their
current syllabus, examinations and practical experience, all freshly developed
following market research.

The introduction of compulsory continuing professional development (CPD) is
an opportunity for the accounting institutes to switch some of their publicity
to the relevance of members in older age groups.

At the same time, institutes need to help members see that, even if they
undergo CPD relevant to their current post and employer, the ability to respond
to change is hugely important. There is a great risk of becoming more and more
specialised in the particular aspects of a specific position and developing a
habit of looking inwards rather than to the wider business and professional

The bodies need to encourage CPD that looks beyond current needs for
technical competencies, and instead deals with a range of personal skills of use
outside the organisation. They need to deal with how those members already
well-progressed in their careers can present themselves to other potential

Some accountants in business may want to move into practice, an environment
where what they offer is more likely to depend upon individual experiences.
Making this transition requires a range of new skills, which are unlikely to
have been gained within a large organisation, and even those trained in public
practice will need refreshing.

Practice-specific skills include knowing how to run a practice and market
services, and how to deal, not with colleagues, subordinates and bosses, but
with clients who often lack formal business skills and run sometimes very small
businesses. Those working in practice must also observe specific formalities,
such as bidding for assignments, defining their commitments, reporting on
progress and obtaining client acceptance for finished work.

Professional bodies could quantify the problem, promote the value of
experienced members, encourage CPD that fits people for change in employment and
signpost training for members to be self-employed in practice. The question is,
could they go further and help place them in jobs?

In the early 1990s, the problem of ageism was particularly evident. CIMA’s
solution was to create a register of those seeking work and send out regular
mailings of the register to members who requested them. A few members obtained
employment through this approach. There was no charge for the service and the
numbers being placed did not justify it. It was concluded that a professional
institute did not have the skills and support structure to do the job of an

However, since it is often senior members who recruit staff, the professional
bodies could enter into dialogue with these about ageism in the profession and
encourage them to recruit across the age ranges. At the very least, the
institutes might be willing to offer counselling to fellow members, perhaps
through the district societies or branches across the UK and in other countries.

Age discrimination legislation has an important part to play. But this will
be not so much to enforce employment of older accountants as it will help to
change the culture from one of rejection to one of acceptance.

More significant is likely to be increasing demand for professionals, which
must be coupled with the realisation that future jobs will not be the same as
those in the past. Ultimately it is the actions of professional bodies and
individuals that must ensure that expectations and skills develop to meet new

Legislative teeth

DTI secretary Alan Johnson has announced that over 65s will get the same rights
to unfair treatment and redundancy payments as younger workers. The new measures
­ published in draft last month ­ are the final stage of implementing the
European employment directive. With the approval of parliament, the regulations
are due to come into force on 1 October 2006.

The draft regulations: 

  • prohibit unjustified age discrimination in employment and vocational
  • require employers who set their retirement age below 65 to justify or change
  • introduce a new duty on employers to consider an employee’s request to
    continue workingbeyond retirement 
  • require employers to inform employees in writing, and at least six months in
    advance, of their intended retirement date, which will allow people to plan for
    their retirement 
  • remove the upper age limit for unfair dismissal and redundancy rights,
    giving older workers the same rights to claim unfair dismissal or receive a
    redundancy payment as younger workers, unless there is a genuine retirement 
  • include provisions relating to service related benefits and occupational

The regulations also remove the age limits for statutory sick pay, statutory
maternity pay, statutory adoption pay and statutory paternity pay. The DTI says
it will also be taking steps to gauge stakeholder opinion on changes to the
method of calculation of statutory redundancy payments.

The DTI is consulting on the practical application of the draft regulations,
to ensure they are effective and workable.

Jake Claret is former deputy secretary of CIMA

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