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Accountancy MONTH Grace Caraher

16 Apr 2021

Jean O’Donovan, Director with the Brightwater Group is in conversation with Grace Caraher, Principal Consultant with Brightwater’s Accountancy Division.

JOD:  So I’m here today with Grace Caraher who is a Principal Consultant within our Financial Services Accountancy division. Grace has been with Brightwater since 2015 so has seen many different stages of growth. Tell me, Grace, what’s your role in Brightwater?

GC: As you said, I’m Principal Consultant. I recruit within Financial Services for accountancy roles. I cover everything from part qualified accountants right up to experienced qualified accountants. You’re looking at everything from Accounts Assistants to Financial Accountants, financial reporting roles, Systems Accountants, FP&A up to Finance Managers and Financial Controllers, looking at industries and sectors within financial services such as insurance, funds, asset managers, banking and aircraft leasing, those would be the main areas.

JOD: So it’s a very big remit

GC: Yes, absolutely, a busy area which is great.

JOD: Looking at the roles, Grace, what would you say are the roles most currently in demand for financial services accountants? What are the roles most in demand for accountants working in financial services?

GC: I think the general financial accounting, financial reporting roles are still very much in demand. We’re also seeing probably a little bit more in terms of regulatory roles and things like IFRS17 which is a huge thing in the insurance industry with that coming into effect in 2023. There are a lot of new roles coming up there, on a project basis or as part of the more standard accounting roles. I’d also say internal audit and controls roles, there’s quite a lot happening there. They would probably be the main areas that we’re seeing at the moment.

JOD: Across financial services, it obviously is a very big area with many verticals. What would you say are the busiest areas at present?  What are the busy areas within financial services?

GC: I think insurance has been quite busy throughout the pandemic and even over the last few years, it’s definitely an area where we’re seeing a lot of roles and a lot of hiring happening and growth happening in teams which has been really positive. I suppose those roles, what they’re looking for are the main technical accounting skills, exposure to things like Solvency II, or specific insurance products such as life or non-life products. It’s definitely a really busy area and there’s a lot happening in it.

JOD: I think with insurance it would be fair to say even similar to the last downturn in the market which was probably 2008, 2009, 2010, insurance remained stable. Would you agree if it is a very stable industry at present?

GC: Yes, it is. Out of the wider financial services areas, it’s probably the most stable I’ve seen. As I said, there’s a lot of recruitment happening in that space so hopefully it continues that way.

JOD: Absolutely. What would be attractive for a candidate to go into work for an insurer?

GC: I think again, I suppose the growth opportunities. There is a lot of big insurance companies here in Dublin. A lot of them have relocated on the back of Brexit and are opening new offices here in Dublin. But I think, just the vast array of types of roles within insurance companies, there’s that potential for long term career growth and the opportunity perhaps to move around in a company as well. There are definitely good companies to try and get into. They do generally have competitive salaries and benefit packages as well which is very important for candidates.

JOD: In relation to Brexit, have you seen a positive effect within your market?  Has Brexit had a positive effect on the Irish financial services market?

GC: Yes, definitely. I think there are more financial services companies relocating here or expanding their teams. We’ve seen a lot of that over the last couple of years initially but it’s definitely something in the news and being more and more talked about so yes, I think financial services, in terms of recruitment, is going to benefit from it. I think also from a candidate perspective, we’ve seen a little bit more movement even from candidates who had been based in the UK looking at relocating to Ireland or coming back to Ireland. So even that talent pool coming back into the Irish market really is a positive sign for us and for companies.

JOD: Yes, absolutely. Bringing me back along nicely to my next point to candidates and the pandemic in general, we’ve seen a very unusual market for the past year. Have you seen many candidates coming back to Ireland?

GC: Yes, absolutely. I think that obviously a lot of people maybe went travelling at the start of 2020 or at the end of 2019 and had to cut that short. So they’re back and in the market. Also I think that people who had been living abroad for many years in Australia or Canada, they want to be moving back home now, closer to family, closer to friends so there is definitely a lot more happening on that front. I think again, it’s probably making it a much more competitive market now for candidates on the look-out but in terms of the talent pool and people coming back, they’re bringing back really strong skill-sets as well. From an employer’s point of view, there’s a great advantage there as well to hire some of these people but yes, there is definitely more movement happening on the scene.

JOD: That’s good, you’re right, it will make the market more competitive and it’s really good to see that skillset being brought back into the Irish financial services market that we can use to our advantage from that side of things.

JOD: You’ve mentioned obviously that insurance is busy which is great. Are there any other areas of financial services that is seeing growth at the moment?

GC: I think some of the corporate service providers, that’s quite a busy area, there’s a lot of those building out teams. Again, I think asset managers, at the start of the pandemic, a lot of companies were a little slower with recruitment but asset managers, the fund industry, they’ve picked up again and there is a lot of roles happening and opening up there. In terms of types of roles and level of roles, I think there has been more happening on the senior level but I think they’re now starting to hire at the more junior level as well. Probably at the start of the pandemic, some companies did hold off a little bit on hiring thinking that it was going to be a short-term problem but it’s proven that it’s going to be longer term. That’s something we’re going to see a little bit more of in hiring across the board and on-boarding remotely. It has been definitely successful and smooth running from the companies.

JOD: With that, Grace, How have candidates in the financial services market adapted to working from home?  

GC: To be honest, they’ve adapted really well. With financial services, it wasn’t really the norm to work from home in most companies compared to the likes of a tech company so it was a big change for people and for employers as well. Across the board though, they were very quick to adapt to it, companies were obviously quick to get the technology in place as well as get people set up working from home in a short space of time. Definitely candidates, it’s something that they really enjoy and want in the long-term, from speaking with them. I think, having that option of working from home 1 or 2 days a week in the longer term is something that we’re being asked about when we’re talking about jobs, is it something that will be an option in the longer term. It definitely seems like it’s something that people want and are looking for. I think in terms of productivity, employees have shown that they can be as productive working from home as well and that’s something even on the flip side talking with companies, with employers, they’re saying that this is something we wouldn’t have offered previously but going forward we would hope to incorporate the working from home piece in the longer term which is really positive and hopefully will help people with work-life balance, commuting times etc.

JOD: I think it’s about getting that balance right. If there’s one thing the pandemic has shown us, it’s that it absolutely is possible. It’s also very possible to recruit from home as well. How have you found that? How have you been preparing your candidates for interview, via Zoom, Skype, MS Teams?

GC: I think initially it was very new for a lot of people. They had never done a virtual interview, we’re used to meeting people face to face and didn’t know how to build rapport with them over video calls. It was a little bit daunting, I think at this stage, we’re 12 months in now so I think everyone has adapted to it very well now. I think in terms of preparing candidates, it’s basically utilising the technology we have so we’re using Zoom calls, MS Teams. Most people are using them on a day-to-day basis anyway so it’s really just getting people more confident, practicing it with them and letting them be confident going into the interview. I think on both sides, employers know as well that this is something new for people, a different way of interviewing so they are understanding of that. It’s being prepared, make sure your camera is working, make sure your sound is working, make sure there’s no issues on connectivity etc but by and large, I think it’s been really smooth in terms of interview processes and as well as that, some companies that we’re dealing with have even said that in the longer term this is something that they may continue to use when things are back to normal and eventually when we’re back in the office, they could continue to do initial interviews remotely going forward. I think it does offer a little bit more flexibility in scheduling and time off. It can work on both sides quite well.

JOD: Absolutely and I think it’s very important because it doesn’t take time out of candidates’ and clients’ day to day side of things, having to get to and from the office. Of course, there’s nothing like meeting someone in person for sure but I do agree with you, it could shorten that 1st and 2nd round process which could be very beneficial to the recruitment process.

GC: Absolutely, yes, I think we’re going to see more and more of it going forward.

JOD: In terms of salaries, Grace, how have salaries been within your market and benefits in particular, for accountants in 2021?  Has there been any change in accountants’ salaries and benefits across financial services for 2021?

GC: I think they’ve remained more or less the same. There hasn’t been a huge jump in salaries or decreases to be honest. Benefits have remained quite strong. They are strong within financial services. Companies are still offering bonuses, maybe up to 10% and more, pensions- maybe up to 5% or more, life insurance, health insurance and they are the standard benefits we’re seeing across the board. Then some companies will offer some additional benefits; some will offer the likes of gym membership or costs for travel. Overall they’ve stayed stable overall.

JOD: So it’s fair to say it has remained static, nothing has been significantly reduced.

GC: Yes, exactly, which is good.

JOD: Yes, I think that’s good to see, it bodes well going into hopefully a busier 2021

JOD: In terms of accountancy as a career, what are the main qualifications you would see your candidates securing? What are the main qualifications needed for accountancy professionals working in financial services?

GC: I think the main ones would be ACA, ACCA or CIMA, they’re kind of the main ones. Some do go down the route of CPA. It just depends on the different routes people want to take, what suits them better, depending on their own situation. They would be the key ones to follow. In terms of background of where they would do their training, it would be from a practice background or in financial services. There are options but both would give you options to move into financial services in the longer term as well.

JOD: And with the accountancy qualification, would you see it as very much a qualification that people could travel with? Is accountancy a global qualification that you can use in any industry?

GC: Absolutely. It’s globally recognised, it’s the type of qualification you can bring to any country and accountants are needed in any business so it’s really one of those careers that can give you so many options. It’s definitely a career that I would advise people that if you have an interest in it to definitely look into, talk to someone in the industry, talk to a recruiter like myself or one of the team here and we can really give you an insight into options, routes and roles as well that you could potentially get into. I think it’s definitely a worthwhile career move with a lot of growth potential and obviously the remuneration is quite competitive to other roles.

JOD: Well, that’s all very good to hear, particularly I think with accountancy where years ago, it may have been very much seen as a back office function and the role of an accountant has changed hugely. They’re so much part of the organisation, very involved and setting the budgets, setting the forecasts, that whole commercial element is huge and very interesting and attractive to accountants.

GC: Absolutely, I think that’s definitely something we’re seeing. Companies want those more strategic and commercially minded accountants as well that can obviously bring something to the business and add value so I think the role itself can be more interesting than people think. It’s not just the number crunching and head down. It’s very much involved in the business, there’s a lot of opportunities and options.

JOD: What would you say are the softer skills that your clients would look for when they are hiring people onto their finance teams?  What are the soft skills financial services employers look for when hiring finance professionals?

GC: I think communication is definitely key. They want someone who can communicate clearly and concisely within the team, someone who can also communicate with people outside of finance and explain things to them. That’s definitely a key thing. I would also say adaptability. Due to our current situation, there’s a lot of things happening but apart from that, a lot of financial services companies have things going on in the background like restructuring in departments, mergers & acquisitions happening, so they want people who have that adaptable mindset and who are flexible to those changes. Then I would also say attention to detail. For any accountant, that’s key and goes without saying but it’s definitely something employers would look for in interview and would test and look for examples.

JOD: It sounds like a career in financial services sounds very interesting with all the different facets to the businesses that you’ve mentioned which sounds really good.

GC: Yes, there’s a lot of opportunities there for people.

JOD: Fantastic.

JOD: Tell me yourself, Grace, what do you enjoy most about your role as a financial services recruiter, working with clients and candidates to find suitable matches.

GC: Probably the variety of the role, to be honest. Recruitment can often be very fast-paced. You’re dealing with new people every day, new clients, new roles, new deadlines. You’re kept on your toes. It’s obviously rewarding to be working with people that you’re finding them a job they love. I suppose getting the right candidate for a company and getting that skillset that they really need and knowing that you’ve helped them to achieve that so that’s probably what I enjoy most about it.

JOD: It’s certainly a busy role, no two days are the same. A lot of those skills you mentioned ie adaptable is certainly applicable to your own role as well which is really good.

GC: Yes, absolutely.

JOD: Are there any particular areas in financial services that you see growth in for 2021?

GC: For 2021, I think that FP&A, financial planning, those more strategic type roles, there’s more of that happening within businesses and they want people to get involved and look at those longer-term plans. Apart from that, probably those more regulatory roles as well. As I mentioned before, in insurance, that IFRS17 piece is something that’s really big in insurance at the moment. There’s a lot of growth happening there in terms of new roles being developed specifically to concentrate on that. Then, I would say probably the more general project roles. There’s a lot of that happening at the moment where they’re bringing people in to build out different systems, integrate new systems, or implement new up-grades within a company as well. They’re probably the main areas, I would say.

JOD: Fantastic


JOD: Could you tell me in terms of the recruitment process, let’s say, a typical financial accountant role joining one of your key clients. How long does that recruitment process typically take and what advice would you give to an employer in order to secure their desired candidate? What’s the typical recruitment process like in financial services and what advice would you give to employers and/or job seekers?

GC: Sometimes within financial services, it can take a couple of weeks for all of that to really happen in terms of getting interviews set up. There is always a lot of different people within that business that need to be involved in that process. What I would say is that it can be a case that it will work to their disadvantage in a way that they can lose out on candidates. Some industries do move a little bit faster and candidates do tend to move quickly when you’re in a process. It is important to concentrate a time to try and get interviews done over a period of two weeks and get things lined up. I suppose for both sides, it keeps the interest and keeps the momentum going within the process as well. I think that’s probably key. In terms of competitiveness, there is still options out there for candidates, even in the current climate. That’s what you’re up against if you have other offers there on the table. It’s trying to be competitive and move as quickly as possible on those key candidates.

JOD: Absolutely, so your advice would be very much to have your process in place and to be ready to hire once the role is released and move to interview. You’ve mentioned it’s a competitive candidate market. What is candidate availability like?

GC: I think that candidates are open and looking at roles. Given that people are working from home, they may have a little bit more flexibility to do up their CV or apply for jobs. I think also that interview to do interviews over lunch, not to have to take that big chunk of the day off to attend that interview really plays in their favour as well. I think that candidates are open, they’re looking, they’re still considering moves. I think there’s slight apprehension as well, the main thing is job security and also offering flexibility. That’s something they’re all looking for when I’m speaking with them. In terms of the market, there are candidates out there. It is still quite tight in certain spaces so the more technical experience or things like Solvency II, those candidates are a little bit more in short supply. Overall I suppose that it is quite a buoyant market in terms of candidate availability. 

JOD. Grace, thanks so much for your time today, it’s been so insightful and it’s great to hear that it’s been such a busy market.

GC: Thanks very much.