Industry or Practice? A discussion.

Practice or Industry? Information to consider for accountants on a crucial career choice in the Midlands jobs market.

It’s January, a time of career reflection for many. It therefore seems apt to discuss one of the most prominent questions accountants will consider if they train within practice; should I stay in practice when moving jobs or seek a move to industry?

The answer will of course always depend on the individual’s situation, ambitions and crucially what opportunities are actually available in the jobs market at the time. However, there are some general points that most people should think about when facing the decision and this article seeks to discuss those.

Most people are considering their options openly and are seeking information and advice about what could work best for them. The jobs market changes daily, so what roles are available to you is an ever changing discussion. Often it makes total sense to explore both industry and practice at the same time and ultimately choose the best job offer that arises from that search. Some people start their search totally ruling out a move to another practice but we feel it is worth reading through this article before making that decision either way.

Moving from a smaller firm to a larger firm before considering industry used to be a well-trodden path for many accountants, but accountant’s career behaviour in recent years has changed. Some accountants from smaller firms have skipped the move to a larger firm and gone straight to industry or felt they were better served staying where they were in a medium sized practice rather than moving into a larger firm.

Following a number of recent meetings with our accountancy practice clients ranging from the big 4 through to modern and successful independent firms, I have listed the common objections we receive from people about moving jobs within practice and the counter-argument employers are currently offering.

What would I gain technically by moving to another practice and how would this benefit my career development?

A variety of experience and client base: The East Midlands is a medium sized business market in the UK. This means that even if you work for the largest firms here, the environment and client base will never be dominantly “corporate”. By virtue of this you will gain varied technical experience in the Midlands, even in the big 4. The largest firms do have PLC clients locally, but they are passionate about getting out the message that you can choose which clients you want to work with. The average client size in the Midlands is £30 million to £70 million turnover in the big 4, perhaps less than you would expect and they service the full spectrum from large listed / PLC clients through to small entrepreneurial clients. You can move from one job focused on highly technical work involving IFRS and US GAAP with PLC clients on to the next one which can be a local small business experiencing growth in a niche sector.

The diversity of experience available helps up skill you and give you a greater understanding of what size of client and industries capture your interest so that if you ultimately move to industry, you are better informed. Executives and Assistant Managers can get involved in client pitches for new work or unique projects to broaden their professional horizons at an early stage in their career.

Quicker promotion and a better chance of progression really happening: Promotions rarely need to be sanctioned by a head office in the larger firms. It is local Partners who dictate when you can be promoted and often promotions are available twice per year. Promotion to Senior Manager has been achieved within 3 years of joining at a big 4 in Nottingham. Salaries in top 4 and top 10 firms are at the top of the market and many independents pay surprisingly well. When you factor in quicker and more achievable promotions in competition with less people going for those and market leading benefits packages, your earning potential over the next 5 years could well be better in practice than industry.

Another practice firm and certainly a leading top 4 or top 20 employer still carries the same prestige on a CV and can only help you make the right industry move further down the line, often at a higher entry grade. If you are unsure on what move to make, it’s worth considering that moving to another practice still keeps all of your options open, whereas time spent in industry means you lose skills relevant to practice, making a move back into the profession more difficult in the future if you do not enjoy working within a company.

We were recently told directly by a big 4 firm that they understand many new employees intend to move into industry in 2 -3 years’ time and they will help those people secure jobs with their clients in industry at the right time. They seek to enable such moves and take a mature and consultative stance to employees with that career plan. It benefits the firm to have you working in a client’s business and ultimately being their main point of contact there if you progress to FC or FD level.

Larger firms often also have roles available as you progress which are internally focused if you prefer that route. You can become a “people manager” focused on organising staff to fulfil the workload and mentoring people as they progress. Roles in larger internal teams such as finance, IT, recruitment etc offer a different career route to client facing audit, tax and advisory services.

If you are from a smaller firm, there has never been a better time to get a move into a top 4 or leading national practice. Even those with minimal audit experience are being considered as larger firms are placing an increasing value on accountancy skills and personality. Those from smaller firms moving into big 4 or top 10 firms will be supported with technical training and start on smaller jobs, gradually building their technical experience.

Secondments are a big advantage of moving to a larger accountancy firm, with your job guaranteed to be there for you when that finishes. Big firms can offer proven examples of many of their staff going on international secondments to work abroad, spending months on secondment at a client (giving you a taste of life in industry and improving your CV) and taking secondments in other service lines such as transaction services, tax etc. This all allows you to improve your technical skills and keep your career options wide open.

Is the work / life balance poor in larger firms and will I have to travel long distances and stay away from home frequently if I move to a larger firm?

If you move to another firm, particularly one in the big 4 or top 10 it is reasonable to expect you will work hard and travel to some clients outside of a one hour commute. However, we ask employers and employees frequently in those firms what the reality is and the following is worthy of note.

Our big 4 clients in the East Midlands work hard to ensure people within audit and client facing specialisms who wish to limit travel, spend the vast majority of nights in their own bed. “Away” jobs are managed carefully and distributed in consultation with employees. Of course for some people, spending 2 weeks in the US, continental Europe or other areas of the UK sounds exciting and large firms can offer such work on occasion if you want it. For those with local commitments, family and a desire to be at home, you can manage this in consultation with your immediate management. Firms aim to position you at clients within a sensible commute of your house rather than their office.

Some of the leading firms have a paid overtime policy to recognise additional hours and one particular big 4 firm has a “jump start” Fridays initiative, meaning an early finish on Fridays in quieter summer months as long as the work is done.

A Partner in a local big 4 firm recently explained to us how several staff leave early on certain days to collect children, far more people work part-time than perhaps is perceived in big 4 / top 10 and the “busy period”, whilst perhaps more intense than normal times, is arguably a much less dramatic change in workload than it can be in smaller firms. The same Partner also made it clear that he cared not for when people were at their desk or the hours they were seen to be working. He felt that culture had been eliminated and the office runs on an “outcomes” basis where those hitting deadlines can be doing that by mixing work between the office, clients and home around their personal commitments.

Many employers we know also question the common notion that industry means a better work / life balance. Companies have month ends, year ends and busy times where the work has to be done and arguably this can mean later nights and longer hours than you might work in the profession.

Many larger firms are multiple award winning employers. They have received national and international recognition for their benefits, career development plans, diversity in the workplace, management of those requiring flexible working hours etc. You would be joining a widely accredited employer who places their position as a leading employer high in priority.

Do you value stability in your employment? Redundancies are rare in accountancy practices currently and in a jobs market where applicants with the right skills are always finite, securing another position quickly in practice is usually possible. Numerous larger industry employers around the East Midlands have made redundancies over the last year as they faced tough times in trading. In the current economic climate, many of the Partners we speak to in practice feel they can offer the safest haven employment wise for good people and they still need those people to progress and get promoted quickly, whereas career development can be halted in a commercial business by issues out of your control in the wider company.

OK, I am curious to know what options could be available for me with a move into another practice but do not want to commit to lengthy interview processes. What next?

We are preferred suppliers from the big 4 firms through to strong independent practices across the Midlands and have been working with most of those for over 14 years.

Employers are happy to have an informal coffee with those who want to know more but remain undecided about whether to pursue their career in practice. The Directors and Partners know preconceptions about life in that firm, large or small can put people off. An informal coffee, telephone conversation or in some cases open days at firms give you the chance to find out more, understand what the firm and role could really be about and then decide whether to progress to a formal interview for the job. An informal introduction can be organised at most firms currently recruiting.

Contact Greg Emmerson at Blusource for further information and an up to date jobs list relevant to your skills and ambitions. [email protected] / 07901 640045.

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