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Barriers to Entry

Typical obstacles faced by those with a less traditional career path within accountancy.

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Recently I had to deliver the rather harsh news to a candidate that he was going to have to take a step backwards and take what he could get if he truly wanted a career in accountancy and wished to progress. It got me thinking. Why are there so many barriers to entry in the UK for those having come from an ever so slightly non-traditional route? On the whole, but definitely not always, the candidates needing to overcome these barriers are from ethnic minority backgrounds and whilst I would never imply these impediments are due to racism, I do feel there is significant prejudice against them. In this case, defined as a “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience”.

I regularly receive applications from well qualified accountants. They have appropriate qualifications, experience at a Big 4, the right to work in the UK and yet I know they won’t find an opportunity. Clients tend to dismiss them without any real consideration. Granted, there may well be many other, better qualified, candidates applying for the role but in many instances, this is not the case. The situations I speak of are where the client has been advertising for months, applicants are few and far between and this new candidate could well fill the brief but isn’t given a chance. Perhaps it’s my fault for not effectively presenting the candidate to the client, or perhaps I am simply unable to overcome years of prejudice? Given how quickly such candidates are dismissed on a regular basis, I fear it is the latter.

I put much of this article together before the Covid-19 crisis really hit the UK in a significant way and we don’t know as yet how candidate short the market will remain after lockdown. At present much recruitment is on hold but I think my points are still fair. Whilst the economic impact of the virus will be significant, it’s unlikely that there will be a sudden abundance of candidates when before there were very few available for many positions.

Below are some of the objections I typically face and my response to them.

Limited UK experience and / qualifications

I have never quite understood the reticence to interview candidates with work experience from other countries. To be fair, those from European, commonwealth countries and the US tend to fare well enough. For those from Africa or the Indian Subcontinent the door is almost always closed and it takes considerable perseverance to pry it open.

Why? Accountancy has been the same for hundreds of years, in principle, and with the adoption of IFRS in the UK from 2005 the practices between countries are more similar than ever. The majority of the time, the candidates I speak of have either internationally recognised qualifications (CIMA) or are qualified CPA/CA’s in their home country and have trained at a Big 4 in that country. So why does this issue persist?

Of course, there will be circumstances that add some nuance where there is a need for a different approach but in a candidate shortage surely even someone who can perform at least 80% of the role without input is a great solution?

Not currently in the UK

This issue I can both understand and yet it confounds me on occasion. Where there is an abundance of readily available candidates, I can, and do, appreciate why a client would choose not to delay the process by interviewing someone who is not yet in the country. However, it is a candidate led market in many sectors within Accountancy at the moment and as such, a ready pool of candidates is a rare thing.

There are a number of reasons why a candidate, with the right to work in the UK (visa sponsorship is not required), has not yet arrived in the UK. Perhaps they have limited funds and need the security of a job before making the move or perhaps they have plans to move back soon and would like to get a jump start on the job search.

When your options are diminished and you are presented with someone who meets all the other criteria for the role, why would you not consider them? It baffles me when such candidates are dismissed out of hand.

There are a great many video conferencing platforms available that can allow you to gain a good sense of the candidate. In some ways this can be a more challenging interview process than usual as you can observe how they deal with social norms within an unusual environment, see if they are easily distracted, as well as put them through some challenging tests should you so wish. I recall my final interview to join the Internal Audit team of Premier Farnell Ltd in 2007 was conducted over Skype, so this is not a new concept by any stretch and if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to get far more comfortable with remote meetings as a norm.

Different qualifications, new to accountancy

I remember arriving in the UK 20 years ago and discovering that for most people choosing accountancy as a career, they would have a degree in an unrelated subject – Geography, History, English. Not so in South Africa: if you wanted to be an accountant, you needed a degree in accountancy. Pretty obvious to me: I have a Bachelor of Accounting Science (majoring in Accounts and Audit) and a further year studying an Honours degree or Diploma of Accounting (equivalent to a Masters here). In the UK I found a more enlightened approach, with the assumption that if you had the skills to complete a degree, any degree, you would have the skills to learn the art of accountancy on the job and could study towards your qualifications then.

So why then, do candidates that have decided on a career change and have begun to study towards an accountancy qualification of some sort, typically receive short shrift? They are UK based, have the right to work here, and typically have a degree with experience in a different field. Why then, do a significant proportion of prospective employers not regard this in the same light? Why is this seen as an issue rather than the gaining of an employee with determination, existing skills and an excellent work ethic. I know, there will be those that flit from profession to profession as quickly as they go through milk but again, I’m not speaking of those candidates, and the ones I am talking about are treated the same.

I, too faced similar opposition when I arrived in London all those years ago. I may well have only been 22 but on top of my degree I had experience. Four years successfully running my own promotional company with South African Breweries as my main client and all that entails; one year working for a small accountancy practice raising their invoices; 6 months running weekly payroll for an independent ceramic company of 30 employees and a host of unrelated part-time roles I did during high school to be able to pay for my university fees. I had also turned down a position at Deloitte & Touche (South Africa) in favour of expanding my horizons and thought I had a lot to offer. Apparently, I was wrong. All I wanted was a chance and yet the recruitment consultants I met were incredulous when I indicated what I was looking for and either told me to give up completely or take something far beneath my ability. I felt it was the recruiter’s fault no one was willing to give me a chance at the level I was capable of. I realise now their hands were tied and the community they served, on the whole, just wouldn’t think outside the box. Faced with no other choice, I started at the bottom in a contract position. Once I had UK experience, I was able to rapidly move up through the ranks but finding that first opportunity was really tough.  

Frustratingly here I am 20 years down the line and very little has changed. How disappointing.

Michele Fellows.

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