Accountancy, like many UK industries, has faced a tumultuous few years of staff and skills shortages, leading to rising salaries. The recruitment market has been active and buoyant – and still is. But economic circumstances are beginning to shift, with the latest official figures showing pressures in the UK labour market are starting to ease.
Wage growth has not slowed as much as expected, however. Average pay growth in the private sector, excluding bonuses, was 6.9% higher in the three months to February than a year earlier, down from growth of 7.3% in the final quarter of 2022, according to the Office for National Statistics. For the public sector, average pay growth was 5.3%.
Despite a dip in headline inflation figures, and business confidence showing signs of recovery, the cumulative effects of rising costs are forcing organisations to tighten their belts and their cost-cutting may lead to redundancies, although the UK accountancy sector has not yet experienced any major job cuts.
That said, in the US both EY and KPMG have announced plans to axe thousands of jobs, and often trends in the US spread to the UK. Although the recession forecast for the UK is predicted to be shallower and shorter than initially expected, it is likely to happen at some point this year. With that amount of economic pressure, accountancy is also likely to experience some level of shake up.
What does this mean for accountancy recruitment in the UK? Experts are confident that neither a halt on recruitment nor widespread redundancies are on the cards. Chris Goulding is Managing Director at recruitment firm Wade Macdonald. He says: “In accountancy and finance, we’re not yet witnessing masses of redundancies. From our client interactions, it seems many organisations still have the necessary funds to survive, but as prices rise and government support potentially lessens, we may see smaller firms struggle.
“There are certain hallmarks that we anticipate the market will experience if we do enter a recessionary period, such as a higher demand for more senior roles and an explosion of the interim and contract market – a trend we are already beginning to encounter.”
Accountancy is undergoing a major transition to match structural and economic changes in the wider business world, so the industry urgently needs new skills and experiences, as Alan Myers, Accountancy and Finance Recruitment Expert at Reed, explains: “The rise of automation has created new job roles in the sector,” he says. “Professionals who are skilled in data analytics and proficient tools, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), are in high demand, as they can analyse financial data to identify patterns and trends.”
Because of this industry transformation and increased automation, recruitment is as much focused on the person as their skills. “There is a need for professionals who can provide strategic advice based on the financial data generated by AI,” Myers adds. “The shift towards automation is creating a skills gap in the sector, where there is an abundance of individuals whose roles can now be automated, but a shortage of professionals who possess data analytics skills.”
Indeed, these recruitment trends are being experienced across the sector, says Sophie Austin, HR Partner at South West-based accountants Monahans: “Technical excellence isn’t enough; emphasis must be placed on broadening leadership, communication and interpersonal skills, as organisations shift their focus to become more people-based.
“Accountants must be able to think strategically and critically, to provide objective counsel and, if necessary, challenge supportively. To do so, strong relationships are required, based on building trust and the emotional intelligence to understand that communication means different things to different people.”
Although accountants with the right skills can still command high salaries, recruiters suggest we are likely to see pay stabilise, despite inflation remaining stubbornly high compared to other industrialised countries such as the US and Germany.
Matt Lawford, Divisional Director at Gleeson Recruitment Group, says: “As of now, the market remains highly competitive, though we are seeing salaries starting to plateau (after significant levelling up). The most in-demand disciplines remain within tax, especially across corporate within mid to large firms in London.”
However, Beverley Barbarash, Head of Finance Recruitment at Tiger Recruitment, says another trend that’s emerging is for candidates to ask for “a premium if an employer requires them to work from the office five days a week, to cover commuting costs. The good news is that employers are often willing to increase base salaries for their preferred candidate – particularly for more senior positions. And while we’re seeing more full-time office roles on the market than in 2022, most businesses still offer hybrid working.
“Candidates who tick the right boxes can often command higher salaries,” she adds. “In general, jobseekers’ salary expectations are higher than usual due to the rising cost of living.”
If you’re looking to make the most out of the current trends in the marketplace, recruiters advise focusing on softer skills and achievements to highlight how you can add value to an organisation. As Goulding says: “Finance and accountancy professionals need to be constantly looking ahead, forecasting future needs, and evolving their skills accordingly. Professional qualifications are, of course, crucial to future-proofing your individual capital as they benchmark your expertise and quantify your value-added. But outside of this, your work ethic is the most effective weapon in demonstrating your value and making yourself an indispensable asset. Be reliable and inquisitive, always volunteer to do new things and become that ‘go-to’ person the business cannot do without.”
FP&A, commercial and analytical skill sets are especially sought after, particularly when coupled with data analysis and interpretation, Lawford says. He points to pockets of robust job flows with established, PE-backed and software as a service (SaaS) clients particularly, within the Thames Valley, London and Midland markets.
Caroline King, Director of Permanent Talent Solutions at Robert Half, adds: “While the market is buoyant, anyone looking for a new role shouldn’t fall into a false sense of security. Competition for the top jobs is still rife and if you want to stand out to the right employers, you need to put the same attention and effort into your application process as you would when job availability was more limited.”
Perhaps, as Myers suggests, it’s vital for job-hunters to remain agile: “Keep an open mind. Now, more than ever, firms are evolving and adapting quickly, which means they might be able to offer completely different (and more attractive) options than they could in previous years.”
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