Graduates enter accountancy for many reasons. For some, it is a career that
they have moved towards since choosing an accountancy related degree, while for
others the move into the profession is a haphazard affair, triggered by a lack
of any other uses for that degree in Classics.
The popularity of accountancy has increased enormously over the last ten
years. The perception of the profession as a route towards a bitter and
dissatisfied middle age passed a long time ago, and a whopping 8% of graduate
jobs are now within accountancy. The benefits of accountancy are the training it
can provide and the well-structured career development, not to mention the good
pay levels, which have seen very impressive growth over the last five years.
Graduate pay levels for those joining the Big Four are now in the mid-£20ks and
a newly qualified accountant at the top of their game in London can expect a
salary of £50k.
Furthermore, it is likely that accountancy will see a growth in popularity
over the next 12-24 months. While other professions anticipate a decrease in
graduate recruitment programmes, the Big Four and many other practice firms are
maintaining graduate recruitment at the levels of previous years and there are
many graduates who will be looking at accountancy as a safe and sensible option
for their first step into professional life.
And yet, in spite of the many advantages of the profession, many accountants
choose to spend relatively few years in the job. Most see the qualification as
the end of their career in practice rather than the beginning of it and most
find themselves leaving their first company within five years.
There are many reasons behind so many taking an early exit, but the
flexibility afforded by the qualification certainly plays a role. Aside from the
technical knowledge it provides, the qualification process itself requires
enormous discipline and a thoroughness of approach that would be hard to match
in other jobs. Also, combining study with employment teaches accountants to
manage their time in the most effective way possible, all of which are qualities
that are extremely attractive to employers. Furthermore, the knowledge acquired
lends itself to many finance related roles.
Upon qualification, accountants find that they can explore roles in financial
management, general management, commercial finance…and it’s difficult to think
of a role within an investment bank that a good accountant could not do.
However, it’s not just the number of options available to accountants that
means they leave the profession. The working environment within a practice is
demanding and many leave their first firm with the intention of restoring a
It’s certainly not unusual for accountants to put in 60-hour working weeks,
particularly during the busiest times of the year. While this may have been fine
in one’s 20s, there are some who would prefer to spend more time with their
families as their lives change.
Many accountants feel that firms would ensure better rates of retention if
more flexibility was provided on this issue. Many feel that refusing to work
weekends or put in extra hours for several weeks at a time will have an impact
on their career progression and development within the firm.
It is also suggested by several respondents to our recent survey that
accountancy loses so many people because it recruits the wrong people in the
first place. Upon qualification or even before that time, many arts graduates
who joined have discovered that the role is not a long term career choice for
them and decide instead to use their experience to benefit their interest in
If firms are serious about keeping people in the profession for longer then
more attention needs to be given to the issue of work-life balance and greater
scrutiny needs to be given to those who are entering the profession. Also, the
issue of sex discrimination continues to be an issue. Whenever we ask accounta
nts and auditors about this subject it’s clear that many women feel that the
glass ceiling remains firmly in place and see other career paths offering
With so few female partners in the Big Four and even fewer within smaller
firms, it’s easy to see why many women hold this perception.
Good and bad news
The results of the survey conducted by CareersinAudit.com revealed that
although 46% believe the profession was becoming more popular to graduates, it
could still do more to communicate the long term career benefits of becoming an
accountant. Quality of recruitment also appears to be an issue with 63% of the
opinion that the profession could do more to attract better quality graduates.
The bad news for employers is that 76% of those working in the profession feel
that starting salaries need to be raised in order to attract stronger
candidates, with only 23% feeling that companies offer competitive starting
Most accountants and auditors would recommend their career to a graduate
while making it clear that the job was not for everyone. Reasons for moving into
the profession were various, but the most popular responses were the structured
training programme, ability to learn about business and the chance to work with
numbers. If they hadn’t moved into the profession, most would have moved into
banking, law or an engineering related role. Only three respondents provided
‘astronaut’ or ‘pilot’ as career alternatives and thankfully, none responded
with lion taming.
Most accountants feel that the insight it provides into business is the most
exciting part of their job, while ‘people skills’ are seen as the second most
important attribute after technical skills. Being commercially astute and having
a sense of humour scored badly on the same question (5% and 7% respectively).
It also appears that most see the profession as a stepping stone to another
career. Most accountants and auditors see themselves leaving the job within five
years (58%) whilst only 11% believe they will still be in the profession within
Max Williamson is director of
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