February 2018

To ACCA and Beyond! - Jumping the Work Experience Hurdle

To ACCA and Beyond! - Jumping the Work Experience Hurdle

LSBM was visited last week by experienced ACCA accountant Antonis Diolas (pictured left), who has worked for two of the 'Big Four' accountancy firms (KPMG Cyprus, Ernst & Young - Guernsey and London), and who now works for the ACCA as an Audit and Business Expert in the Business Insights Department.

He was here to have a chat to our students about his eleven years of experience in the employment journey he undertook, firstly in becoming a qualified ACCA accountant and then in practicing at prestigious firms, and latterly working for a leading professional accountancy body, the ACCA.

Sometimes it can be easy as a student to get caught in the mental loop of thinking, '...to get a job I need experience. But to get experience I need a job!' and feel suitably trapped and exasperated, and much of the event was spent trying to answer that condundrum, both in an illustrative sense (of how Antonis managed to make the leap), and also in more general terms as to how our students could go about it.

In some ways this can feel a bit like the clip in 'Toy Story', where Buzz Lightyear unfurls the 'wings' on his spacesuit for the first time and leaps from the ledge, crying out loud, 'To Infinity and Beyond!', fully expecting to fly (you can watch it in the link).To Infinity and Beyond!

Unfortunately, Buzz drops like a stone, and things don't pan out nearly as he had expected (though, just like your job search hopefully, they work out in the end!)

Similarly, it is easy to send out many job applications, or applications for even unpaid apprenticeships in the accountancy field (or anything else for that matter), hear nothing back, or get outright rejected, and draw from that the general conclusion that your wings/qualification are like those of Buzz, and that perhaps you simply weren't destined to fly/get a job as an accountant.

It would be nice if it was simply a matter of taking a degree, studying hard, getting good grades and walking straight into a well-paid job, but the reality is rarely so straight-forward. There is therefore always a sense from the audience at such events in which there is hope that the 'expert' will 'reveal' the magic secret to making this happen that has been hidden from them, and a frustration when it isn't. But in reality, the truth to kickstarting a career is somewhat more prosaic and edging towards the 'hard-work, perseverance and keep trying new things' end of the spectrum.

In fact, Usha Mistry, Course Leader for our BA (Hons) Accounting and Financial Management degree programme (pictured right above), and the person who had invited Antonis to come along and speak, spoke about the Catch-22 nature of needing experience, but not having any as follows, when she summed up at the end:

"Just to let you know. Whatever Antonis sends in terms of internships, voluntary or otherwise, I will forward that on, so you will have an opportunity to apply.

But research was carried out in Oxford Brookes and I think you need to make at least twenty applications for an internship just to get one interview.

So, it is tough out there and yes, you do need to take a lower level or voluntary work.

You do need to differentiate yourself, do network, do go to events, do learn the skills, do watch the webinars that the ACCA sends. And yes, you are all logged onto the ACCA student membership. So do use all those facilities.

If you don't use those facilities a job is not going to land on your lap. You actually do have to go that extra mile... These are the things you have to do. It is up to you. It is tough out there.

I did a lot of voluntary work with disabled children and I didn't get paid for months, years on end. But it's something that I did to show an employer that I am a very hard-worker and I was willing to do all of these extra bits just to prove that I was different than the others."

Antonis has now provided the following links to Usha from the talk:

Job opportunities and careers advice:

https://jobs.accaglobal.com/
http://careers.accaglobal.com/careers-advice/career-development/developing-your-skills.html

Video showcases of real-life of ACCA qualified professionals:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEoq3t-L4M4&t=2s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nj5mpYUqqYA&t=14s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lc_ieoG8LaM&t=15s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEfqI81qiCg

 

How a 'Real' Accounting Career has Unfolded

In his talk Antonis began by explaining something of his background. How he wasn't a grade A student, but managed to get a low-paid job for a small accounting firm in Cyprus (where his monthly salary wasn't even enough to pay the monthly petrol bill for his car), and managed to survive financially only due to having a supportive family. This was a state-of-affairs which he freely admitted is not an option open to everyone, but which is not unusual in a world where unpaid internships and unpaid voluntary opportunities are increasingly becoming common ways to get the required experience to get on the employment ladder.

This experience led him to apply to Cyprus University to study accountancy. From there his career progressed through passing many ACCA qualifications and then going on to secure a job at KPMG Cyprus. In 2013 Cyprus passed through a difficult period financially, with two banks collapsing, and Antonis managed to secure a new job with Ernst & Young in Guernsey, which is a hub for investment and finance companies. Later he secured an internal transfer to the Financial Services Division at Ernst & Young in London, before getting his current job as an Audit Business Expert at the Business Insights Division at the ACCA.

This is a short summary of an eleven-year accountancy journey! But is generally indicative of the nature of how 'real-world' careers progress. For example, had Antonis have applied to the big four accountancy firms without any experience, then in all likelihood, they would not have employed him (given the glut of graduate candidates clamouring for jobs). But having built his career up gradually and gained real-world experience, he was able to end up working for two of them, as well as for a leading professional accountancy body, the ACCA.

The message is clear. Getting on a 'Big Four Graduate Scheme' would be great. But not getting on one is not the end of a dream.

If you want it badly enough then you can often slip in through the side door, once you have enough real-world experience built up that makes you more easily stand-out from your peers.

Though still apply! You gotta be in it to win it! (Really, these days, it is more a 'Big Five!') - Here are links to their graduate schemes:

As Antonis said in his talk:

"I am a living example of what you can achieve if you follow a professional qualification, such as the ACCA."

 

So, how do you get that first work experience?

Here were some of the different strategies that were touched upon:

1/ Apply for Accountancy Apprenticeships

This may not always be directly applicable if you are doing a degree. But it may be that your circumstances change, or that you want to dip a toe into the water and see what is available.

There are far more of these opportunities then you may realise (the link below showed 231 at the time of writing)

Here for example is a list of current accountancy apprenticeship vacancies.

 

2/ Look beyond the glamour of the big accounting firms and be prepared to take a job at a smaller firm (and keep on applying regardless!)

Sure. It would be nice land a graduate job at PwC out of the gate. (And there are actually more of them then you may think! This article indicates that in 2015 for example, PwC had more than 2,000 graduate, school leaver, paid internships and work placement positions up for grabs!)

But, the odds aren't necessarily in your favour. For the above for example, there may have been 2000 jobs, but PwC received 41,000 applications. So, while the odds may be better than you think, it is still unlikely.

But still, that is only one firm... There are literally hundreds of graduate accounting jobs on offer at any one time.

Today, for example, there were 494 graduate accountant vacancies being advertised.

If you applied for all of them, then your odds of getting one go up exponentially, regardless of your background, experience or even how you did you in your degree.

As Antonis's own experience testifies to, it isn't where you start, it is where you end up.

A search for simply 'accountant' on the same job site brings up 16,179 jobs!

So if you aspire to work for a bigger firm, then starting out at a smaller firm does not jinx your career. Rather, it can be a natural building block to gain the necessary experience to make a smooth transition to work for a larger firm much more likely.

 

3/ Volunteer

If any of you have ever run your own small businesses then you will currently be enjoying the feeling of freedom that only the passing of 'Tax Deadline Day' (31st Jan) being over for another year can bring.Business

The accounting side of running a business is not one that most small business owners relish.

At an educational institution like LSBM, which prides itself on being entrepreneur friendly, you may even have friends who have started small businesses, and who would jump on any offer for you to help them with their accounts.

You, in turn, can then milk that experience on your CV. It not only demonstrates real-world experience. It also shows that you are committed to doing what it takes to stand-out from the crowd. 

There are over 5.5 million businesses in the UK, and 4.2 million of them are classified as 'non-employing businesses'. Put another way, that is 4.2 million people who have to do their own taxes! So there is no shortage of business owners who would probably welcome you giving them a helping-hand (providing you approach it sensibly).

Similarly to the enormous number of small businesses, there are over 185,000 registered charities in England and Wales. Every year over 5,000 new ones are created. Most of these have very limited funds and an offer to help out with the accounting work, if approached intelligently, is likely to be well-received.

You can do a search online for Registered UK charities here.

In addition, the big ones like Cancer Research UK, British Heart Foundation and Oxfam are going to have their own dedicated teams of accountants and opportunities to match for accountancy graduates. The top 100 charities have an income of over £9.5 billion, which all needs to be accounted for by someone.

Here are 82 Volunteer Finance Jobs that are available right now in the charity sector.

 

4/ Get Networking!

You don't have to limit your search to friends.

Get networking! Make some new friends and along the way open up some new opportunities.

These are very easy to find!

Here, for example are 49 different accountancy meetups within 25 miles of London.

Not all of them will be relevant. But how much opportunity do you need? There are so many that you could join that the only real limitation is your time, not the opportunities.

In addition, this is a great way of securing an accounting role in a specific industry. Join a group that is in that area, for example fashion and beauty, get to know the members, and when you are friends offer to help.

And this doesn't even include meetups relating to business, or entrepreneurship.

It also doesn't include all the dedicated groups, webinars and resources that you have available via CIMA and ACCA, because LSBM has already paid (if you are one of our accountancy students) to be a member.

So, be sure to check those out as well.

 

5/ Emphasise the differentiation you bring

One of the main reasons why it is so tough to get a graduate job is because, from the employers perspective, it is often difficult to be able to tell the differences between candidates, especially if they have no work history.

The main factors they will be judging you on initially are academic. But even here, there are a lot of students getting firsts or 2:1 degrees (this article from the Independent suggests that a quarter of all degree candidates now leave with a first (compared to around 8% in the early 1990s), and that overall almost three quarters of students now achieve a 2:1 or higher).

So, getting a 'good' degree is not enough. You need to be able to demonstrate that you have the 'soft skills' of leadership and people skills (read our blog post - "CIMA Business Game - Build Your 'Soft' Skills" where we talk about some of the ways LSBM is helping to enhance our students employability skills)

The degree gets you in the game, but it isn't an end-point.

You need to be able to demonstrate that you bring other skills to the table. So, join clubs, meet people, read the news in the industry you want to work in (and more widely), and be interested in what is going on around you, and be prepared to talk about those experiences and what they mean in practice to benefit the firm who you are looking at to employ you.

Nevertheless, getting a first does still put you above three-quarters of all other new graduating students academically! So that is clearly advantageous and you should always endeavour to get the best grades you possibly can in your degree course.

 

6/ Look at the websites of professional accounting bodies

There are far more of these then you may realise.

Here are the graduate, placement, jobs and internships pages for a few professional accounting bodies:

You can find many more yourself by having a browse through the bodies linked to from this page.

Unless you apply you have no idea if you would have got to the next step.

So, at least make them reject you, rather than rejecting yourself by not even applying!

 

7/ Look for international accounting opportunities

One notable aspect of Antonis's work experience was his willingness to move countries to embrace new opportunities.

He may have started at a small firm in his 'home' country of Cyprus. But later moves saw him live in the Channel Islands and London.

In addition, don't limit your search to London. While many of the bigger firms are based in London, you will find many large accounting firms based in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and throughout the country.

The advantage of applying to these regional firms is that often you will face less competition for the roles. So, while it may not be ideal to move away from an area you know, it may be both a good career opportunity, as well as an exciting growth and life adventure.

 

Conclusion

The takeaway from this talk is that while everyone, at some point, feels like saying, 'To get a job I need experience. But to get experience I need a job!' and feels like it is the truth, in reality there are always options that you can try.

These might be applying for more jobs, making more contacts, joining more societies, building up your soft skills, working harder at your degree, looking further afield for opportunities, asking more people if they need help, volunteering, asking others how they got their job, or any number of other things.

As Usha said, this is not a passive process. You need to put yourself out there, keep on trying, and not get disheartened by knockbacks.

Samuel Goldwyn, founder of Paramount Pictures, perhaps summed it up best when he said:

"The harder I work, the luckier I get."

So don't wait for the accountancy firms to come knocking.

Make your own luck. Start knocking on their doors so loudly they have to hear you!

Many thanks to Antonis Diolas for coming along to talk to us, and to Usha Mistry for arranging it.

 

Stuart Brown
Media and Content Manager

Partners and Accreditations

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