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Accountancy was not on my list as a child of the career path I planned to follow when I grew up. In fact had I had a list of careers I did not want to follow- it would have sat comfortably on that.
However, Once upon a time I was sent to a company by an agency to work as a temporary general clerk. On arrival, I was informed that it was not a general clerk they had booked, but a figure clerk. I said "Sorry I will ring the agency", to which they responded- well you are here now, we will give it a go if you will. I stayed as a temporary worker; I became permanent and eventually became their head of Management Accountancy.
Now let me tell you Management Accountancy is fun- you are the fortune teller of finance and I came to love it.
You spend most of your time forecasting the company's finances- for weeks, months and years ahead.
Now to reach the rank I reached you have to work your way up and in so doing you learn everything there is to learn about the company- you have to- if you don't you cannot do your job.
You also have to know what is going on out there in the big wide world and what could go on in the big wide world. For example forecasts now for the next financial year would have included an option of a change of government and incorporate any manifesto policies that could impact on your income.
Alternatively, if say you sold lettuce, you would have to pay attention, when Spain had snowfalls; they are not common and will no doubt impact on the prices of your next crop purchases.
You have to know about what is happening and what could happen in every company you trade with. As I say sometimes years ahead. You have to know about future planned changes in legislation at home and in Europe and countries you trade with.
The Office of National Statistics becomes one of your favourites as it gives you a wealth of trend data.
Depending on what business you are in, you may need birth rate data, house-building data - the list goes on and on.
Right now for example, I would be expecting company sickness/absentee rates to rise; because of the swine flu pandemic- some will be sick, some will have family members sick and let's be honest some will find it a great excuse to swing a sickie.
Company bosses will be forever giving you what ifs to calculate- what if we opened the factory for an extra shift? What if we gave a 4% pay rise? What if we gave a 2% increase along side an additional day's leave? What if we opened five new outlets every 3 months next year? What if? What If ? What if?
Now thru all this you have to maintain a level of reasonable assumption, no one in London would have built in the loss of trade following the 7/7 bombings. However, no one in their right mind would not include the possibility of a major factory closure in an area that would impact on you, when that company could, from what you could gather be failing- with no likely rescue plan on the horizon.
I could often be seem sitting at my desk, with my head resting on my hands - or sitting back in my chair-looking very relaxed with my eyes closed- now anyone else in the company would have been in trouble for such behaviour- but in my case it wasn't only allowed- it was vital- I was thinking. I was thinking about the What If I had to calculate and thinking of every assumption I needed to make and all those I could make, but choose to ignore.
Try it, think about the company you work in and think of all the things that could affect it's profits- now if you stop before your list is 100 items long- you are not even trying.
Sadly this tale does not have a " and they all live happily ever after" ending. I was asked to forecast the weekly profit for factory, shops, admin and the overall company for 6 months, So I did.
After a couple of months I was called in to see the General Manager- he said my weekly forecasts for the last two months had been very accurate- I was initially pleased,. He then said that on that basis they had decided to close the factory in two weeks time. He needed me to look at which shop outlets were viable to be transferred to our factories ASAP. Had I known what they were considering, the outcome would have been the same, because it was a job I enjoyed doing well.
So if you have thought all accountants were boring and somewhat nerdy- remember we are not all like that-Management Accountancy is a job I would recommend highly- because it isn't about figures - it's about life.
I am describing my experience of my job and no two jobs are ever the same- there were very detailed weekly management accounts to be produced in my company and that did involve a great deal of number crunching and data resourcing, but as I worked in a multi million pound company with an awful lot of "what ifs"- and even forecasting what was going to be the result one week ahead was vital- I spent a deal of time doing research in preparation for forecasting, attending meetings to keep up with the companies plans at all levels, and forecasting. I had the role of overseeing a team of staff that would produce the reports. I could only do that part of my job well, if I could question their data, in a way that would probably appear to them that I had some kind of sixth sense, whereas in truth I learnt to soak up information like a sponge.
I am a strong believer that if you are going to embark on a career that involves many years of study- you should go and meet a number of people, in different places, who are doing the job. I had a friend to didn't do that and spent four years of his life training for a job he has come to hate- it isn't at all how he thought it would be- so he now plans to retrain.
It would not be true to say that I dreamed of being an accountant from early childhood but it certainly crossed my mind from time to time throughout my schooling years, mainly I think because I was good at maths. Something I presumed would be the main criteria for being an accountant (its not). At university I was so enthralled with my chosen subject that I was considering a career as a medical statistician, but was finally put off by the required extra years in full time education and so I returned to that earlier plan of accountancy.
It is now 14 years since I graduated and embarked on my career and I have always worked for large international organisations in the financial services sector, namely insurance, asset management and investment banking and I now work as Chief Financial Officer for the Bermuda branch of a global insurance company. This review will mainly be about my personal experiences and observations during this time and I dont intend to research and regurgitate the latest from the different accountancy bodys websites.
It is theoretically possible to pursue an accountancy qualification after A levels but I would not recommend it because it would involve several additional years of studying at the same time as working full time, there will be few employers providing the level of support required to obtain this qualification quickly for A level candidates and if gaining your qualification ends up being a very long drawn out process it will probably result in it not being perceived as highly as it would have been had it been achieved in the normal time frames. I make this final point from my own experiences in the financial sector in London, which is fiercely competitive, although maybe it is not quite as true in other industries and outside London.
Most accountancy trainees are graduates, particularly those training with one of the large practices. In the UK, the degree subject does not matter at all, unlike in other countries where a business or accountancy related degree is required. If you are sure at age 18 that you want to be an accountant then an accountancy degree will provide a few exemptions from the professional exams, it might make the process slightly quicker and of course the material will be more familiar to you but I have not seen this being a huge advantage to anybody. My own advice would be, you are probably going to spend the next 35 years working as an accountant so why not do something different at university and then if you do change your mind you wont have to explain your seemingly strange choice of degree for the rest of your life. My own degree was maths and statistics, some people think that it is logical to move from maths into accountancy, however there are no parallels whatsoever, apart from that people who study maths tend to be numerate as do accountants.
Apart from the academic qualifications, accountancy trainees should be numerate, be comfortable analyzing and interpreting data, be logical and well-organised and contrary to popular opinion verbal and written communication skills are vital to succeed in this profession, particularly the ability to explain financial matters to non-financial people.
You cannot become an accountant by studying full time, your exams must be complemented by at least three years of relevant practical work experience. You may need to keep and submit a diary detailing the type of work you have done, particularly if you work for a smaller organization. If you work for a larger organization, you should also keep such a diary but more likely your employer will run an approved scheme and by virtue of working there your accountancy body will assume you have the appropriate practical experience and will admit you to membership once the exams are passed.
After university there are two paths into accountancy, you either join an accounting firm with whom you will most probably spend your time performing audits on other companies and study for the ACA qualification. Alternatively you join the finance department of a company and here you are likely to pursue the CIMA or ACCA qualification. It is a common misnomer that only the ACA accountants are chartered, but this is not true, they are all chartered as evidenced by the C in CIMA and one of the Cs in ACCA.
So which route do you take? If you join one of the large accountancy firms (KPMG, Ernst & Young, PWC or Deloitte & Touche) then you will undoubtedly receive excellent support through your studies, including generous study leave and paid for tuition and exams. It also is a very strong foundation for your CV and especially in the early years of your career, it means your CV will generally get a good look when you apply for other jobs.
If you join a smaller, local chartered accountancy firm, the level of study support is going to vary from company to company and you should ensure you check what this is before accepting a position. If you decide to leave the practice and join a blue chip or global organization, it will be harder to do this from a smaller accountancy firm as those who have trained with any of the big four will have dealt with clients of this size before whereas you will not have. I have always worked for global organizations and I know that I and my colleagues would avoid taking somebody from a small practice and having to transition them into a large organization with the related usually complex infrastructure. So if you train with a small firm, you are more likely to end up working for medium and small size companies.
If you chose to train in industry (as we call it) rather than practice the situation is quite similar in that it is the larger organisations that are more likely to offer the study support that is required, I trained within a blue chip financial services company and I believe I received study support equal to that of the large accountancy practices. If you join a smaller company, it is quite likely that it will take you a long time to qualify, as evidenced by the many CVs that I have seen over the years.
You should really aim to complete the exams within three years and ideally without retaking any papers as you will often be asked if you had first time passes or not, especially in the early years of your career. If you do not have a high level of support from your company then you are unlikely to pass in three years, people who have taken many years to complete the exams are often viewed in a dim light.
The standard of the accountancy exams is officially deemed to be equivalent to a degree course. My own opinion is that the subject matter in my degree (maths and statistics) was much harder than the subject matter in the accountancy qualification. But, and I cannot emphasize this point enough, the accountancy exams were far harder to pass and far more challenging. For a start you do not have the luxury of studying full time but have to put in a full days work and then go home to study. The other point is simply that the marking is tougher. Whilst some may drop out, not many people actually fail a degree, the percentage of people passing must be in the 90s at least. With the accountancy exams, the percentage of people passing each paper is about 35%. It is hard work and you need a lot of dedication.
For the first few years of my career I felt disadvantaged that my qualification was ACCA and not ACA because there is some misguided (yes I would say that) snobbery about training with one of the large practices and hence the ACA qualification. However after a few years of post qualification experience, most employers will be more interested in the work you have done rather than the body you have qualified with.
After qualification there are a number of paths to follow depending upon your own interest, I will discuss a few options. In some companies a role may include a blend of a few of the options, in others they may be separate roles generally depending upon the size of the company mainly.
Technical Accountants are highly sought after and can be hard to find. Accountancy rules are constantly being updated and the technical accountants job is to keep up to date with these changes and assess how their company should apply the rules. Additionally they give advice on an ongoing basis as generally mere mortal accountants such as myself, do not know every accounting rule by heart. Technical accountants do not generally get involved with the humdrum of preparing the financial reports.
Management Accountants are aligned to the business and it is their job to provide insightful financial information to the non-financial managers running the business which will assist with decision-making. They also work closely with financial controllers to ensure that the management information does actually tie back to the externally reported results.
Financial Controlling involves the running of a finance department, encompassing day to day general ledger control (i.e. recording income, expenses, assets and liabilities), managing a month end close and right up to preparing the financial statements to be reported externally.
Systems accountants act in a way as a link between the IT department and the finance department and are mainly found in large organisations where the finance systems can be very complex. Their role is to ensure that the infrastructure is properly supporting the finance function, overseeing changes and new system implementations and ensuring that the financial implications are properly considered, which somebody with a pure IT background, most probably would not be able to do.
Compensation and employment
As a professionally qualified person, your company will expect you to work whatever hours are required to complete your job, including weekends, regardless of what your contract states. My experience of working for large financial organizations in London is that you are extremely unlikely to find a company that will pay you for the extra hours (unless you are a contractor of course).
Many accountancy roles are based around monthly reporting cycles, with additional responsibilities at the end of a quarter and even more at the end of the year. At these times you can easily find yourself working 15 hour days without pay but it would undoubtedly be career suicide to refuse to do it.
Salaries are generally good though, particularly in the earlier years and I believe a part qualified or newly qualified accountant (approx age 24 - 26) will be earning more than average amongst their peer group, although for many this will level out over time.
I have spent eleven years in financial services based in London in large organisations, which is generally where the highest salaries can be earned. Here the part qualified accountants would command salaries in the GBP 40ks and a newly qualified accountant would earn about GBP 50k. There are also many contractors in London, the newly qualified accountants would earn about GBP30 an hour which easily means GBP 70k a year, but without holiday pay, sick pay and the various benefits that come with being an employee. In other industries, moving outside London and in smaller companies then the salaries will be lower but still will earn you a comfortable living.
After the first few years of post qualification experience, salary rises will start to flatten and then it really depends upon the individual, their responsibilities and how successful a career they make of it.
Accountants are often labeled boring, but I have rarely met the caricature accountancy geek, in fact only one springs to mind in 14 years. Most of the people I have met are intelligent, interesting, socially adept, good-humoured and I remain friends with many I have met over the years.
I have also never found the work boring, although my work has generally been cyclical I have never found two months the same because of well, events, business moves on and things are constantly changing in the business world.
The years of studying are hard but well worth it in the long run and whilst accountancy these days is no more a job for life than any other job, I think that qualification will open up the door to many rewarding opportunities.