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To attract talent, let’s focus on why we matter

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 14 Dec 2022

ICAEW President Julia Penny’s year involved conversations about two major themes: how to attract new and diverse talent to the profession, and the role of the profession in encouraging sustainability and trust. One, she argues, could be a solution to the other.

The second quarter of my presidency has involved more than 17 speeches and at least seven conferences. I met with 13 different professional bodies and countless firms as well as members in business. I visited nearby cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, but also Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai, which hosted this year’s World Congress of Accountants. 

The big themes in Mumbai were on sustainability and trust; a lot of conversations were about the role of chartered accountants in making sustainability a business priority. Delegates were largely from Indian firms, with about 1,800 from other territories. What became very clear through conversations was that a large section of the world was facing a talent problem that didn’t exist in India and other parts of Asia. 

How we can make accountancy more attractive

The attractiveness of the profession – how to attract, nurture and retain talent in an increasingly competitive marketplace – was a conversation I had again and again over recent months, almost no matter where I was in the world. In the UK and Europe, all sizes of firm are concerned that they don’t have enough people to facilitate the audit work that they typically have in a given year. When speaking to professionals about accountants’ role in pushing sustainability, those small firms would often question whether they had the capacity for it. 

This issue of talent will continue into 2023, and the audit and accountancy profession needs to address it head on. We need to ensure that we are communicating the value of the work that we do, not only to the people that enter the profession, but to its external stakeholders. We need to ensure that progression and development plans are clear; that people will have a strong and fulfilling future through accountancy and audit. 

There are several ways in which we can address this. For one, we need to platform diversity and inclusion within the profession. As the fourth female ICAEW President, I have seen first hand what kind of difference this can make. I’ve had several people tell me how inspirational it is for young women to see a woman in a position of leadership and influence. You want to believe you’re going somewhere when you join a profession, so seeing people from diverse backgrounds in positions of leadership is essential.

We are seeing promising signs in this area: the make-up of District Society and Council meetings, for example, is much more diverse. We must continue to move the conversation forward and encourage more people to join groups, speak at events and pursue senior positions within the profession. 

That will help to make the profession more attractive, but regulators, in the quest for quality, which is vital, risk making auditing look unattractive to young people. It might seem like too much work and risk for not enough pay, especially in more junior roles. 

So we need a balance of regulation, which we don’t necessarily have control over, but we can influence through our professional bodies 

All of these regulatory changes play into the culture of the profession. We need to make sure, as accountants, that we do quality work. We must allow people to speak up and challenge things and offer a different viewpoint without feeling personally attacked. Strengthening that culture will address some of the impacts of regulation while also making the profession more attractive to those currently progressing through their careers. 

Which brings me to purpose, something that particularly matters as we work to make the profession more attractive to new and existing talent. In auditing standards, for example, the public interest element of the role is being pushed to the fore. That focus on the public interest element of the role can feed into conversations about the purpose and ethical drive of the profession.

It’s not always clear to young people why they should join a profession. It’s important to help cultivate an ethical approach – for example the requirement, through CPD, to always be at the top of your game – and it also creates a sense of belonging. It’s something that people should value. We as an institute work hard to ensure that it is valued. 

That brings us back to sustainability, and the role of the profession which feeds into that greater purpose of the profession. We’ve moved away from individualism and towards a more societal role. It’s about people and the planet as much as it is about profit. The mood has changed. We need to consider the impact of every action that we take.

The conversations I’ve had this year show that the profession is taking its role in this seriously. By focusing on the greater purpose of the profession and its role in steering business in a more sustainable direction, we are well placed to continue attracting the growing numbers of ICAEW chartered accountants that businesses are looking for. With both sustainability and attracting diverse talent likely to be continuing themes in 2023, I’m hopeful that we’ll see further progress towards achieving these strategic aims but we need, as a profession, to be willing to talk openly and frequently about why they matter.

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