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Beating talent challenges by embracing social mobility

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 20 Jul 2022

Foxley Kingham, a firm that has helped to shape ICAEW’s social mobility scheme, explains how reaching out to its local community has resulted in better, more engaged junior staff.

Aimee Dimmock, former apprentice at Foxley Kingham Chartered Accountants (FKCA) and now Audit and Accounts Senior at the firm, spends a lot of time encouraging young people to follow in her footsteps. She, along with Director Crystal Boston, has been instrumental in developing a more proactive and inclusive approach to recruitment over the past few years, one that has allowed the firm to encourage more social mobility in the profession, and avoid the worst of the recruitment and retention challenges that many audit firms are facing at the moment. 

The team has gone further, helping ICAEW set up a social mobility scheme in partnership with the charity Working Options, which gives firms the opportunity to speak directly to talented young people at schools across the country. 

“I started getting involved with Working Options when they asked me to volunteer for them,” says Dimmock. They sent me out to a range of schools locally, and I did some virtual talks as well. From that, we developed a working relationship with them. When we started working with ICAEW to get their social mobility scheme off the ground, I put forward that perhaps Working Options would be a good charity to help roll this out on a wider basis.”

FKCA’s recruitment process was originally based on local advertisements and word of mouth, but has adapted over time into a more proactive approach. This started with a few local careers fairs and now includes an annual structured, direct outreach programme of 30-40 schools across Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. 

There are regular touch points and visits to the schools, providing young people with information about the profession, the routes into it, and helping them develop a few basic skills that will put them in a better position to land an apprenticeship at an accountancy or audit firm. 

“The benefits have been huge,” says Dimmock. “A lot of the people we hire come through from where we’ve attended careers events. It has also benefited students because they’re learning about the profession and the Institute, and are gaining skills by coming out and listening to the talks we put on for them.”

“It’s definitely a massive educational piece,” adds Boston. “What I’ve noticed over the years is that there’s a real lack of understanding that you can get a level seven qualification – over and above a degree – and you can do that through an apprenticeship.” 

There’s also often a misunderstanding about the profession itself, she explains – one that is all too familiar to many accountants. “You go to speak at the schools and the perception is you can only become an accountant if you’re very dull, you are fantastic at maths, and if you go and do a maths or accounting degree. It really is an educational piece for the teachers, for the pupils, and often for the parents, as we present options to them that they never would have considered without us going there.”

To ensure the firm is accessible to candidates from a variety of backgrounds, the firm goes to as broad a range of schools as possible in its local community. When it comes to candidate selection, once the CVs are in, Boston ensures that addresses, the schools that they went to, etc, are not considered within the process. They are looking primarily for one thing; that the candidates have tried to push themselves.

“I look for candidates that have a bit of all-round experience; they have interests outside of their possible career, they’ve applied themselves to all the challenges they have faced so far and have learnt from those experiences, whether it be at school, in a part-time role or even volunteer work, regardless of their background. In my experience, it is not always the most gifted students on paper, with access to the most extracurricular tuition and activities, who are the best candidates. Those who have faced greater personal challenges are often those who cope better with the pressures of work and study and are able to communicate well with their peers and clients from the local area.”

“Going into schools and speaking to all students gives a lot of young people that didn’t think themselves capable of getting into the profession the confidence to put themselves forward,” adds Dimmock. They often assume that you must go to university to become an accountant or auditor. “It opens doors for people who almost closed those doors themselves; they didn’t think they would ever be able to enter this profession.”

The firm has had a continual flow of students coming in over the past few years, and the quality and engagement of the candidates is getting better each year, Boston and Dimmock agree. 

“A few years ago, for every 100 CVs, only about 10 would be any good,” says Boston. “I now usually get something like 30 CVs, and I’d say that over half or nearer two-thirds are actively the quality we want. That all comes down to the fact that we put the time in at the beginning to attract the right sort of students to apply.”

Multiple people at multiple levels throughout the firm are brought in to help deliver this recruitment drive. That includes junior members of the team and apprentices – this has had the positive side effect of giving those junior team members the chance to hone their communication skills. “It gives them the confidence to speak with people that they’re not used to interacting with, without necessarily putting them in front of the client,” says Boston.

Having that rich cross section of local talent in the firm also makes them more relatable to clients. Often, candidates will know the client’s business, or the area that they operate in, or they’re from the same community. “They understand the dynamic in the clients because they’re from the same areas and backgrounds,” says Boston. 

Dimmock observes that the scheme has also helped to level the gender balance in the firm. “People from different backgrounds and genders have different qualities and can learn from each other. That’s one of the things that makes our team stand out.”

Social mobility and inclusion

As organisations struggle to attract the talent they need, there is a business need to widen the talent pool. At the same time, they recognise the need for diversity of thought in order to survive and thrive.

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