The accounting services industry has grown over the last few years due to private capital expenditure, which is increasing the demand for services, according to IBISWorld. The research firm says accounting services in Australia is a $19 billion revenue industry, with a 2.1 per cent annual growth rate. With the industry going strong, so too are job prospects in this diverse field.
When making the choice to pursue a career in accounting, it is worth thinking about what kinds of roles are available, the different types of career paths you can follow, as well as the pros and cons of working for a 'Big Four' accountancy firm versus a smaller, private sector company. While accounting is one sector, there is a variety of career options.
Robert Half has asked several accounting professionals to share their insights about what an accounting career means to them.
The attraction of accounting careers
Sachin Dave is at the start of his career in accounting, and since graduating over three years ago, he has been working as an accountant for PwC, one of the Big Four. He chose to undertake a career in accounting while still at high school after his application for PwC’s trainee program was accepted. To complete this program, Sachin Dave was required to study part-time while working full-time with the firm.
"From a young age, most of my family were versed in accounting so it was always ingrained in me that it was a good and stable career. I got my first taste of accounting in Year 11 when doing business studies. I realised that if I could learn accounting, it would be a solid foundation for me if I wanted to then leverage my skills to move elsewhere," Dave explains.
Routes into the profession vary. Martin Thompson, senior partner at Wong & Mayes Chartered Accountants, "fell into professional accountancy by accident. But I had an aptitude for it and once I qualified I was soon involved in work which I enjoyed," he says.
John Harrington, Principal at Harrington Financial Solutions, graduated as a Chartered Accountant (CA) in 1979. He was motivated to pursue a career in accounting due to family connections. He started out in the profession when he was twenty, and found personal contacts helpful, as well as "lots of time and training".
Accounting was also in the blood of Rod Weir, CFO of Pooled Energy, a seasoned accounting professional currently working in the private sector. "My father was an accountant and as I enjoyed numbers I never thought of doing anything else!"
Another accountant and former insurance CFO, Peter Stankovic, says he was attracted by working for a business involved in helping clients, both personal and corporate.
From career stability, to being in a role that’s client facing and people focused, to pursuing personal passions – they all had their different reasons for choosing a career in accounting, and they still feel inspired by their jobs today.
'Big Four' or private? The benefits of both
A major decision that many accountants make when deciding to pursue accounting careers is whether to work for a 'Big Four' firm or to enter a smaller private sector company. Harrington chose the private sector as he finds it offers more flexibility.
"Corporate gives you great salary and conditions but you have to work your hours. The private sector gives you the ability to build a team based on your own culture. There seems to be more job security as well," he says.
Similarly, Thompson has always personally preferred the private sector. "I was – and still am – attracted to the flexibility and relative political freedom available in smaller professional firms where you can influence the culture of the firm – this is more so the case than in the ‘Big Four’ firms," he says.
However, Thompson sees the advantages on both sides. "Being a Chartered Accountant in a professional firm exposes you to a large number of different businesses and related issues, whereas being a CFO in a private company limits you to the business operation of that company."
When it comes to climbing the corporate career ladder, Thomson notes that the rewards available to the CFO of a successful private enterprise entity can be far greater than those available to a professional accountant, and many CFOs have become CEO and reaped significant financial rewards as a consequence. "I believe that CFOs are subjected to greater pressures than their counterparts in professional accounting firms," he says.
Weir, who has worked on both sides of the fence, acknowledges the advantages of working for the ‘Big Four’, which has allowed him to pursue his career internationally. After qualifying in the UK and starting out in a small accounting practice, he joined KPMG and experienced "big name liquidations" such as Rolls-Royce. Later he spent several years as CFO of PwC Consulting Division, then moved into the not-for-profit sector before gaining a commercial role following a mere "10-minute job interview" – his resume had already won him the job.
"There is no doubt the 'Big Four' experience opens doors. The key is to make a timely move out of a 'Big Four' firm. The 'Big Four' give you an opportunity to see many facets of business. You get to see client successes – and failures. You work with smart people."
For Dave, the international opportunities offered by global 'Big Four' firms are a big attraction. "The 'Big Four' are global so you can easily work overseas. You’re working with a lot of high performers, like-minded people, and having the support network they offer is very rewarding and important to me," he says.
Dave also observes that working with major ASX-listed clients means you have to be "quite agile in moving from client to client" which in turn adds value to your resume.
"Compared to the private sector, you’re more involved with businesses that are growing at a faster rate, and going through transformation. There will be challenges but if you’re agile enough, there will be great career opportunities," he says.
How to get ahead
As Dave joined PwC directly from high school, it meant that he was able to avoid a lot of the competition for positions at graduate level. Also, knowing how much practical work experience is valued on the employment market, by choosing this path, he had already gained two vital years of experience before finishing university. To further enhance his career prospects, Dave now plans to complete his CA qualification. "In this day and age, a CA is something you need for the 'Big Four'," he says.
Accountants agree that in addition to being hardworking, accounting qualifications and experience are both critical to get ahead in the profession.
Thompson underlines the importance of continuous upskilling and staying up to date with industry developments. "I fell into professional accounting by accident,” he says, but he discovered an aptitude for it, and after qualifying he was soon involved in work he really enjoyed. "Once I chose the specialty I wanted to pursue, I learned all that I could by extensive reading, attending seminars and joining tax groups to keep abreast of all new developments in the industry," he says.
Harrington says "years of experience built on top of sound grounding in basic accounting principles, audit and tax" helped him climb the accounting career ladder.
He attributes his successful career to various factors, including "lots of reading and training and some help along the way from mentors”.
“I joined the Executive Connection for better business perspectives and tax discussion groups for sound grounding in technical tax issues and to see what others were doing," Harrington says.
Accounting careers can be very interesting, challenging and rewarding. While the training can be rigorous, accountancy graduates enjoy a wide range of career options from business and finance to strategy and consulting. The career path opens doors to both the private and public sector and is a key area of knowledge for a promotion to executive management – for those hoping to reach the very top of the corporate ladder when pursuing accounting careers.