PwC’s recent announcement that it has removed a traditional 2:1 degree benchmark from its entry criteria for graduate and undergraduate roles made waves in national and financial news outlets alike. But is it simply the latest sign of a much longer-term evolution of recruitment styles in the accountancy profession?
In a statement, PwC explained that the decision would help increase the socioeconomic diversity of its recruits by allowing the firm to draw on a wider talent pool – PwC removed UCAS points from its entry criteria back in 2015.
Indeed, 2015 marked a watershed in the Big Four’s approach to hiring; EY removed stipulations for 300 UCAS points and a 2:1 degree from its own criteria, Deloitte embraced contextualised recruitment – including school- and university-blind interviews to tackle unconscious bias.
Research from the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) shows that the trend is playing out on a far wider scale than the accountancy profession. According to ISE’s Student Recruitment Survey 2021, the proportion of employers that use educational qualifications as minimum requirements has been on a steady decline since the 2013/14 academic year.
“Employers have reduced their reliance on academic cutoff points over the past decade,” says ISE Chief Executive Stephen Isherwood. “More sophisticated recruitment tools and an ability to reach more students online mean that the landscape is very different to when they received a mountain of paper application forms every autumn.”
But is this trend a positive development for accountancy? Does it merely demonstrate that the current jobs market compels employers to be less fussy? And how, in the long run, will it affect the overall calibre of firms’ staff?
For Karen Young, Director of Hays Accountancy & Finance for the UK and Ireland, firms currently have to be less driven by lists of ‘essential’ criteria for potential recruits, and instead be more willing to hire candidates who may not tick all the boxes.
“That may entail recruiting staff with the intention of upskilling them, or hiring staff from different industries and providing training opportunities,” Young says. Overall, though, she welcomes the development: “It is a positive move that organisations are hiring more on future capability than past experiences.”
Published in July, Hays’s What Workers Want report showed that 80% of employers would consider hiring staff based on aptitude, with the aim of upskilling them. “Understandably,” Young says, “there are certain training and competency requirements that employers can’t ignore within the accountancy world. However, firms must continue to think outside the box to be able to hire at the pace they need to.”
Richard Waite, Head of Resourcing at Grant Thornton, says the firm has been evolving its approach to identifying talent for several years. In 2013 it became the first large professional services firm to move away from academic criteria.
“Since making that change,” Waite says, “we have remained firm in our belief that academic records in isolation are not strong enough measures of success. We continue to welcome applications from those students who would not have met our old criteria. That enables us to tap into a broader talent pool and unlock potential in candidates who, pre-2013, would have been screened out immediately.”
In step with lowering barriers to entry for people from wider socioeconomic backgrounds, Grant Thornton is providing enhanced coaching and a culture of inclusion to help its diverse intake thrive.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: quality control. Do more open recruitment styles automatically leave firms with quality gaps to address – or do they naturally safeguard, and even elevate, high standards in a workforce?
“More open recruitment practices should increase the diversity of who gets hired without any impact on calibre,” says Isherwood. “If anything, the calibre of hires could go up, as firms recruit from a broader talent pool using less arbitrary cutoff points.”
Mohammed Alexander, Head of Recruitment at Lincoln-based accountancy recruiters Executives, says: "The reality of hiring in this sector right now is that there is a lot of talent out there with the right soft skills, who would go on to develop well in the industry – but would traditionally have struggled to get their foot in the door. More open recruitment practices allow us to introduce that talent.”
Waite stresses: “Removing academic barriers to entry does not mean that we have compromised on the quality of candidate that we hire at Grant Thornton. Through data analysis undertaken since making the changes in 2013, we can see that academic profile and success in the role do not correlate. We assess candidates against a framework of core strengths and competencies that we have determined to be better indicators of success.”
He notes: “Large firms being more open and inclusive in their recruitment processes allows for a fairer jobs market where background does not determine future success. The calibre of trainee talent at Grant Thornton remains strong, with a broader range of perspectives and backgrounds bringing value to our firm and the clients we work with.”
Young adds: “Hiring based on aptitude and skills rather than academic achievement can only be a good thing in order to raise the diversity of a workforce. Firms have to be willing to step away from the talent pools they have always hired from to increase diversity of thought, build great places to work – and ultimately, as has been proven in many cases, improve performance.”
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