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7 career paths for newly qualified accountants

Johanna Strachan - 02-Dec-2016


Links to 7 Career Paths

If you are a newly-qualified accountant, now is a good time to take stock of your career options.

It’s a natural juncture to look at your progress to date, and determine exactly what opportunities are available to you.

Being able to better map where these positions can lead to can make the decision-making process much more rewarding, and ultimately help set you on the right course with confidence.

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First off, there can be ample opportunities internally, so whichever organisation you happen to be in always ensure you have exhausted any possible in-house vacancies before seeking roles outside.

If you decide to look externally, then the good news is that there are a number of different routes available to you within Scotland’s financial sector.

Your skill set is in high demand, and highly transferable.

Over the last few months the accounting & finance market in Scotland has seen a surge in demand for recently qualified professionals.

Whatever path you choose to follow, there are several different factors to consider when choosing your next role:

  • Industry sector
  • Company culture
  • Work-life balance
  • Job level
  • Career progression potential
  • Remuneration

Below is a broad overview of some of the options available to you.

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Public Practice Accounting

If you have trained within a practice firm you may look to progress to manager, or indeed the longer term goal of partner.

If you have qualified with a small to medium-sized practice, you may wish to consider moving into one of the ‘Big Four’ practice firms.

This will help further develop your financial services and asset management client experience.

This route increases your exposure to FTSE 500 firms, which can lead to a smoother transition into larger listed businesses.

On top of the accounts preparation expertise you can gain in small to medium-sized practice firms, experience of the ‘Big Four’ can help develop your coaching and leadership skills, as you will have responsibility for leading bigger teams.

You will also develop asset management experience through your clients, and may have the chance to get involved in more specialist CASS or SOX projects.

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Group Accounting

This can include financial and management accounting and finance analyst roles.

Historically, newly-qualified public practice accountants have been highly sought after for group accounting roles.

If you are from a small to medium-sized practice you will probably have hands-on accounting experience across a broad range of activities:

  • Taking ownership for a set of client accounts
  • Preparing the accounts and statutory financial statements
  • Completing management accounts on a monthly/quarterly basis
  • Producing journal entries and reconciling balance sheet items on a daily basis
  • Preparing cash flow forecasts
  • Completing Corporation Tax returns and Income Tax returns

If you are from the ‘Big Four’ and have had access to finance and asset management clients, you may have developed IFRS reporting standards, on top of UK GAPP.

You may also have touched on SOX.

Experience of this kind is in high demand.

As well as strong technical accounting skills, companies within the Scottish financial sector tend to look for strong communicators.

They want business partners with drive and ambition who can communicate directly to the board.

Candidates from public practice often have access to internal and external stakeholders, which has allowed them the opportunity to develop their communication skills, providing them with the confidence to deal directly with senior management.

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Internal Audit and Accountancy

Internal audit offers project-based work as opposed to just the pure audit you would see in an external audit role.

Internal audit presents an opportunity to be very visible and develop key relationships across the entire business.

It’s a great way to get to know the work of other departments.

Typical activities include project work, controls and risk, and really understanding how the business works.

Stakeholder engagement is also key.

If you’re from a practice background, internal audit can be the perfect platform to launch your skills into industry.

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Tax career options for accountants

The last six to twelve months have seen a big increase in the requirement for tax specialists, both those with corporate and funds tax experience.

The pool of candidates with this experience is limited, which makes it an attractive area in which to specialise.

Small specialist teams allows for candidates to become subject matter experts in their field, which in turn opens up more opportunities with less candidate competition in the future.

There are many potential career paths for part- and recently-qualified accounting and finance professionals in Scotland.

Tax offers numerous unique benefits, excellent career progression paths, a constantly changing landscape, and further routes for professional qualification.

However, there is still a shortage of professionals pursuing this path – with multiple opportunities on offer why is this the case?

From our experience this comes down to a lack of awareness of what tax has to offer.

Here are five reasons why specialising in tax is worth considering:

1. Tax is a fast moving industry for accountants

Few industries move as fast as tax.

Constant changes to legislation and regulations mean that tax professionals need to continually expand their knowledge and adapt their strategies.

This necessity of keeping up to date means you are always learning and challenging the status quo.

You won’t be stuck completing the same daily tasks as firms continually look to improve their own processes and abide by the latest regulations.

2. Tax roles offer variety

Tax roles, particularly within financial services, offer wide exposure to the industry and the scope to move into different areas internally.

Junior candidates will gain an insight into the whole business and not just the tax department – a common misconception.

Within the accountancy profession, financial services and commercial industry there are numerous opportunities within corporate, personal, international, compliance and advisory areas of tax.

A typical financial services tax role offers:

  • Exposure to various fund products
  • The opportunity to learn legislation and regulations
  • The chance to develop and build upon client relationships
  • Exposure across a business including functions such as audit, financial reporting, product governance, etc. thus enabling you to support and collaborate
    with other departments
  • Lots of early responsibility and problem-solving opportunities

3. Career progression in tax is promising

With a shortage of candidates within the tax industry there is strong progression potential for candidates who have a specialised, in-demand skill set.

It is not uncommon for junior candidates to be given the opportunity to step up to bigger challenges faster than more ‘often travelled’ career paths of general finance roles.

Some graduates elect to join the tax function from the start of their careers, usually studying towards the AAT in the first instance.

For the newly-qualified, having completed either the ACCA or CIMA exams, you will have covered some tax modules.

Presuming that the modules were of interest, the next steps to becoming a qualified specialist is to complete either the ATT, or the CTA.

Once passed successfully, hard-working and ambitious candidates can expect accelerated routes to management or higher level subject-matter-expert roles.

4. Tax is a stable career

As well as quick and structured career progression, tax careers are among the most stable within financial services.

Unlike the ups and downs of some other parts of finance, jobs in tax are relatively secure.

A typical career route for a successful tax candidate would be:

Tax Assistant - Tax Senior - Tax Assistant Manager - Tax Manager - Tax Senior Manager - Head of Tax

Although it is rare for candidates to move away from tax after completing the numerous qualifications involved, the skills they will have gained from exposure to projects and working with different departments are transferrable for both industry and practice.

This can open up a number of potential avenues further down the line.

Demand for tax experts at all levels

As well as its unique offerings, the tax market place continues to be candidate driven across all levels of seniority.

The demand for candidates over the last four years has been high and this is still very much the case today, due to many businesses growing their ‘in-house’ tax team’s capabilities.

With no signs of the sector slowing down, now is the perfect opportunity for newly-qualified accountants to consider a career within this area and take advantage of the long-term opportunities on offer.

What you need for a career in tax

Despite the high demand for junior candidates within tax, you will still have to display the necessary skills and knowledge if you wish to secure a role.

Working in tax is dynamic and fast paced, requiring not only analytical ability but excellent problem solving and commercial skills.

A degree in a financial or economic discipline is helpful, but you should also be equipped to communicate effectively and deliver out of the box strategic thinking if you want to be successful.

The key skills that professional firms are looking for include:

  • A high level of analysis and numeracy
  • Creative problem solving and persuasion
  • The ability to build good working relationships with clients and colleagues

Candidate testimonial

A recent candidate I placed into the industry has commented on her move:

“After working in the pension fund industry for 10 years, I felt I needed to expand on my experience and taxation felt like the right avenue to go down.

“Within tax I can apply my existing skills but also continue to grow my knowledge within the investment industry, specifically the tax legislation that regulates it and the wider financial services sector.

“As I build my investment tax knowledge there are many potential routes for progression, not only into management positions but other fields within the investment industry.”

Tax yourself?

Ultimately, tax professionals have always been in short supply, despite their central importance to any business’ success.

If the industry’s unique offerings appeal, you should give some serious consideration to such an attractive and diverse industry. The opportunities could be endless.

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Fund Accounting and Investment Accounting

The third party administration space – as well as the asset management sector – continues to offer a number of career opportunities in fund accounting.

More clients are willing to look beyond candidates who only have fund accounting experience.

If you are a newly-qualified accountant with strong accounting and coaching experience, you can easily transition into senior or even team leader roles, depending on the level of supervisory experience.

These teams prepare the financial statements, review the work, and deal with any queries coming from the client.

Progression in these teams typically follows the path of:

  • Fund accounting or investment accounting, to
  • Team leader, to
  • Manager, to
  • Assistant manager, to
  • Manager, to
  • Head of department

Roles in fund accounting can further enhance your asset management and investment administration knowledge, as well as your understanding of products and funds such as OEICS, Unit Trusts and SICAVs.

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Risk & Compliance roles for accountants

Risk and compliance roles continue to be a key area of recruitment for all companies – and at all levels – typically across regulatory, operational, and compliance monitoring.

This, however, remains a difficult area in which to recruit.

There are only a limited amount of candidates actively looking – and they have a lot of choice available to them.

As a result, more and more clients are open to considering candidates from an audit background, especially if you have a good grasp of internal controls and monitoring risk.

In particular, those with internal audit experience can add a lot of value.

Within small boutique asset managers, moving into risk and compliance roles can offer great career opportunities. Roles are often highly visible with a good degree of engagement right across the business.

You will answer questions from all areas and levels of the business, quite quickly becoming a subject matter expert.

Roles like these will allow you to get involved in various different areas, offering diverse and varied work. You will also get involved in projects.

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Corporate Finance

Corporate Finance continues to be an area of great interest.

Practice firms offer excellent opportunities to move into corporate finance teams.

Within asset management firms, roles will typically include investment analyst positions.

Normally clients will be looking for candidates who already have experience within this sector.

However, we have seen some clients being more flexible, and open to considering candidates with an accounting background – especially if you are fully qualified from practice and have started studying towards the CFA qualification.

Knowledge is power

When moving as a newly-qualified accountant – whether from public practice or industry – you will find yourself on a steep learning curve.

Companies operating in Scotland's financial sector are looking for candidates who demonstrate a desire to learn and a keen appreciation that there is a lot to take on board.

By having a greater appreciation of the career options open to you within Scotland’s financial sector, you are better placed to choose a route which fits with your skills and experience.

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Johanna Strachan
Associate Consultant – Legal
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