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Market Insights Accountancy Division

10 Nov 2020

Jean O’Donovan, Commercial Director of Brightwater who oversees the Professional Services division gives insights into market employment trends across accountancy.

Jean O’Donovan, Commercial Director of Brightwater who oversees the Professional Services division is in conversation with Gordon D’Arcy, Commercial Director of the Group.

 Thank you very much for having a chat with me today, Jean

Jean has been with Brightwater since 2003 and has worked in recruitment for over 17 years, primarily within the temporary & contracts accountancy arena and oversees the Professional Services division.

What does the Professional Services division actually cover? 

Professional Services is a very busy and key area for BW – it encompasses all things financial and accountancy, so everything associated with financial services, accountancy and legal. 

That’s a pretty impressive remit but for now let’s focus on the accountancy.

Accountancy has been and continues to be running strong in Brightwater and is one of our core areas. Essentially it covers all accountancy roles in every industry. Our consultants specialise in recruiting roles across Industry & Commerce, Financial Services, Public Practice and Taxation. We also recruit for temporary and contract roles across all of those disciplines.

To give you a flavour of the type of roles we cover, I’ll just briefly describe some of the roles from entry level right up to executive level:

  • Junior entry level roles
  • Trainee accountants
  • Back office roles
  • Credit Control
  • Payroll
  • Financial accountants
  • Management accountants
  • Financial Controllers
  • Finance Directors

Accountancy is one of those divisions that no business could do without. You’ve mentioned the term consultant. What is a consultant and how important do you feel the consultancy aspect that Brightwater adds in a market like this?

The consultancy aspect is very key particularly at this moment but it should be key at any time within a recruitment consultancy.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic,  there has been an increase in candidate availability.That’s a change coming from Q1 of this year where we saw limited candidate availability. So we have to be there for these people, we have to talk them through Covid, we have to talk them through the jobs market, we have to give them advice and really be there to help and get their careers back on track. It’s really important to be there for our candidates on that basis.

From a client perspective, we can’t just be in touch in the good times. It’s important to be able to provide market advice, offer information on candidate availability and advise on at salary structure. Employers may be restructuring teams so we need to be there to provide market information. So particularly at this time, the consultancy aspect is absolutely key. You have to continually engage with everyone even if there’s no immediate hiring need. 

Let’s focus on the accountancy jobs market. What kind of skills do accountants need?

Obviously, the technical knowledge is important but so are the soft skills. However, I’ll start here by giving an overview of the qualifications.

At more junior level, they tend to study for their accountancy technician qualifications (IATI), then they would go on to gain a further professional qualification with any of the four main professional accountancy bodies – ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) , ACA (Chartered Accountants), CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) and CPA (Certified Public Accountants). In terms of levels, you would go from trainee to part-qualified to finalist to fully qualified with PQE (post qualification experience)

When it comes to other skills needed, they have changed dramatically. When I initially started in accountancy recruitment nearly two decades ago, accountancy was very much figures based, back office, crunching numbers, bringing those figures forward to management. It’s done a complete180. Accountants are now the backbone of organisations. The actual role of accountants has hugely changed and they need to be fully engaged with the business and the other departments. We’re seeing the terms “Finance Business Partner” and “Commercial Accountant” being used much more. For the clients I’m working with, stakeholder management skills are nearly ranked above all others. Accountants are involved not only in numbers but in producing strategy and becoming involved in the commercial element of the business too.

Finance professionals also need to deal with non-finance people so they need to develop excellent communication skills. It can be hard to get the relevant information from non-finance professionals but you have to find a way of engaging with this audience and communicate properly that they need to provide you with this information. The whole role has really changed. It’s not enough just to have the technical knowledge, you need the soft skills. There’s a unilateral integration of finance across the business. The old traditional image of the accountant in the glasses holding the calculator is long gone – soft skills and the ability to be an integral and commercial cornerstone of the business is key.

Can you explain some of the terms used in describing the level of accountancy qualifications? Eg, where does “Part Qualified” sit in the finance remit?

Trainee accountant is self-explanatory as is the term “fully qualified”. Part qualified accountants are those who are studying towards their accountancy qualifications.  They’re learning everything, getting their skills up to trial balance, doing monthly management accounts, and preparing accounts up to month end. They do certain examinations and at every stage, their employers would sign off as they get the practical experience. ( Finalists are those doing their final exams)

How important is a professional accountancy qualification and do you need it to get ahead in your career?

You do need a qualification particularly within the Irish market. You do have people who are qualified by experience and there’s no doubt they bring a huge amount of value to their organisations but equally the accountancy qualification goes a long way. It’s also a global passport, (obviously not during a pandemic) but a professional accountancy qualification does travel well. We work with the professional bodies both nationally and internationally and an accountancy qualification is hugely marketable with companies worldwide. We see it with LinkedIn as well, people repatriate all the time. It’s a global moving market, people emigrating for roles and people returning home as well.

This year has been divided due to Covid - how was Q1 of this year for the accountancy hiring market?

Prior to Covid-19, the SME market was particularly busy over the previous 24 months. Financial Services is always quite busy, especially across insurance. Public practice and tax were also very busy. Candidate availability was tighter, particularly for those with niche skill sets.

You’ve mentioned SMES – what was the market like for PLCs in Q1?

It was busy, especially on the General Ledger side – those in shared service centres and in multinationals. Audit is busy and continues to be busy, as is in-house tax. That was very much the case in Q1 of 2020, leading on from Q3 and Q4 of 2019. There were certainly more jobs than candidates available.  

What has the split been like between temporary and permanent recruitment?

The accountancy sector is quite traditional – it would usually tend to have more permanent than contract or temp hires. In 2009 with the recession, that trend shifted, and I do envisage that happening again in the current market. In the current market, larger organisations may not get sign off initially for permanent hires so we do anticipate a slight increase in temporary hiring. FTC (Fixed Term Contract) tends to be quite buoyant within the Irish market – these would cover projects, maternity leave, specific purpose contracts. Pre-Covid, the permanent hiring market was busy and now it’s getting there again.

Who could have foreseen the pandemic?  What was the initial impact on the accountancy jobs market?

Like every industry, the shock hit it hard. Where it really hit and where we’ve seen a drop in hiring and fall back was across the SME market. There have been cutbacks whether it’s been a decrease in relation to additional headcount and hires in SMES and we’ve also witnessed some layoffs and a fall-off in contracts being renewed.

Another area that suddenly got busy as a result of the pandemic was the Newly Qualified market. Again, very similar to 2009, people finished their training contracts and weren’t being kept on by the firms so we’re seeing a higher availability of newly qualified accountants.

There was a transition period as well. Finance is very much an office-based function so there was an initial period of getting everyone set up to work from home.  At Brightwater we were very similar being office based so it took a while for companies to get accustomed to working from home. The amount of organisation it took and the relatively smooth transition was amazing.  Recruitment does continue in a different way however. It was almost like a training session in April, May and June. So we’re all fully into the flow of using Zoom meetings, MS Teams and onboarding candidates remotely.

The sector biggest hit was the SME sector. Of course, those sectors who rely on the open economy were also hit badly such as leisure, entertainment and some areas of retail.

Accountancy is ubiquitous across every industry. Are there any silver linings, green shoots or areas that are continuing to hire?

Financial Services especially insurance is certainly continuing to hire. Taxation is very busy alongside some areas of audit and public practice. We are getting back to hiring across industry – potentially at finance manager, finance controller level. Those roles that went on hold, companies now see that they can’t do without these people. Some roles went on hold in March/ April and they’ve been activated again now in last few weeks. So that’s some good news and very positive to see

Has there been a natural increase in temporary or contract recruitment?

There’s certainly been a natural increase in temporary recruitment – people are going in on an interim basis initially as opposed to making a permanent commitment. The sectors that are doing well are technology, manufacturing and healthcare. As you would expect, these sectors are very busy and continuing to hire. Some of the junior roles too are starting to get busy again across payroll and credit control. Companies can’t do without these functions fully working so we’re seeing increased volume in back office hires.  There are some industries that can remain open during lockdowns and they need to be maintained. So these are critical roles for businesses.

Are you seeing interest from Irish abroad; people looking to move home or has that changed?

Covid 19 has certainly had one positive effect on Ireland as an economy (maybe not on the individuals) but it has led to more qualified people returning home. Irish accountants who were set up in Canada or Australia want to come home just in case of further lockdowns. Certainly some of the newly qualified accountants who may have taken a year off after qualifying and were halfway through their round the world trips made the decision to come home. These are all good skilled candidates so when the market is ready to fully hire again, there are really strong people available.

As consultants, Brightwater staff do have an insight into organisations’ plans. Are companies still making plans to hire?

Albeit in the midst of a pandemic, companies do want to get back to normal. They are all keen to get their business back on track. There’s been a lot of lost revenue while companies were adapting so there are plans in place to get business back to normal. They may be a little more prudent on their hiring process but they are moving forward with plans.

Are companies embracing the WFH / remote working? How is that working?

Industries are still open so there is a hybrid mixture of both in-office working and working from home. For the majority, there hasn’t been a problem. If anything, it has led to a change in mindset. There will be a lot more flexibility with flexi- time and working from home. I think as a nation, we’ve adapted really well and it’s created a great backdrop for the future when they’re ready to hire again.

Have salaries changed much in the last 12 months?

We wouldn’t anticipate any substantial change going on in 2021. Some industries are performing better than others such as financial services or the larger firms. I think 2021 will be very much the same as 2020 salaries. Some benefits – typically within accountancy role, depend on the size of the organisation. Smaller companies will of course be a bit different. Bigger companies have more flexibility on benefits and their typical benefits would include the following:

  • Pension
  • Healthcare
  • Bonus
  • Flexitime
  • Life insurance
  • Income protection

On the contracts side, a completion bonus is increasingly common. This is where you may see a little bit of an increase.  This is given to ensure commitment to continuing in the contract until the end of term. As opposed to it being a portion of salary, what we would advise and encourage would be a bonus on top so it’s an incentive. But on the whole I would say 2021 salaries will be on a par with 2020.

Against a backdrop of such uncertain times, it’s a good indicator of how robust the industry is and how busy we plan to be in the months ahead. Yes, there have been companies that have sadly suffered cuts and layoffs but on the whole, the accountancy jobs market has performed well.

If businesses are looking to scale up or expect to get busier over the coming months, Brightwater’s Accountancy division can help with any temporary / contract or permanent recruitment requirement.  Contact Jean O’Donovan on [email protected] or on + 353 1 6621000