5 crucial career decisions for a newly qualified ACA

Kathryn Swan 02.03.2019

You are probably reading this because you are, or soon will be, a newly qualified accountant. If so, then congratulations! You are officially a Chartered Accountant and hold a highly regarded qualification.

So, now you are qualified, what comes next? 

The decisions you make following qualification will have far reaching implications for your career. The career options for a newly qualified accountants are many and varied. Up until now, you will have followed a well trodden path of A levels, University, and Practice. By definition you are in the top 5% of your age group and probably have been for some time. You have worked hard, but the targets have been clear, with most of your peers following the same path. Now, for the first time, the paths start to diverge and the targets are no longer clear. Your peers will start to separate, each taking a different route. No one can 100% tell you what the next step should be. Hard work is no longer enough to guarantee success. Judgement is now needed. As well as a bit of luck.

Fortunately, very few people make a career mistake upon qualification. On the whole, you have a very good chance of landing a fantastic career. It just needs a bit of planning.

If you are ACA newly qualified there are 5 questions you need to ask yourself:

Stay or Leave?
The first decision is whether to stay or leave Practice. Upon ACA qualification, many people decide to move on. But for some, staying is the right route.  If you work for a small practice, you may well consider a move to a Big 4, where you can not only get involved in roles outside of audit, such as corporate finance, but also may have the ability to second abroad - you will also be very much your own boss, and be able to ​work with stakeholders, several pay scales above yourself, with significant clout within a company - this is not only extremely rewarding, but will definitely assist within your career development. ​I​f you choose to stay, it must be a thought out plan and not simply a wait and see approach. You need to be sure you want a ​​career in practice, as there is little career benefit to staying for 1 or 2 years only to then move on. 

Financial Services or Industry?
If you have decided to move on, the decision now is Industry or Financial Services (or potentially Not For Profit). In my experience, you are either interested in FS or you are not. A job in the financial services industry, such as Investment Management or Banking, requires individuals to have a keen interest in learning about financial products, different asset classes and fund structures. The sector also has a distinctive fast paced culture that can be very attractive for the right individual. Whereas Industry can be more diverse, both in terms of culture and products. The businesses are usually easier to understand and very tangible. Usually, you will instinctively know which route is the best route for you. The same for “not for profit”, which has many similarities with commerce, but with a sacrifice in financial gain and reduced future options in the profit sector.  

Accounting vs Analysis vs Reporting vs Internal Audit? 

The next step is to think about what type of work you want to do. It is impossible to describe in detail all the different types of roles open to you following ACA qualification. Here I will focus on roles in Industry. Most industry roles suitable to ACA qualified accountants fall into 4 broad categories: Accounting, Analysis, Reporting and Internal Audit. There is no one path to CFO, if that is your aim, and so it is better to focus on what you would enjoy and be good at rather than overthink your career plan at this early stage. 

  •  Accounting - Lots of people will say it is best to move into a traditional accounting role, and they are probably right. It uses the skills of your current role so you will feel less out of your depth in the early days. It is also easier to gain technical experience early on in your career, than it is once you have climbed the ladder. An accounting role builds on your qualification and gives you a solid foundation for the rest of your career.
  • Analysis – Put simply, analytical roles can be a lot of fun! They require a commercial and business brain and the ability to work with non-finance functions. The experience can give you a much faster understanding of the commercial nature of a business. Best of all, an ACA with commercial experience is a sought after commodity.
  • Reporting – Reporting roles will involve an element of analytical and/or accounting work, but your main function is to interpret the numbers and communicate the “story” to senior management. These roles can provide an overview of the business, without going into much depth. They give excellent exposure to the business and senior management.
  • Internal Audit – Build on your external audit experience. Add value and help a business achieve its strategic goals by improving the effectiveness of risk management, control and governance processes. A chance to really understand the workings of a company and often used as a stepping-stone into the wider business.

Which sector?

Again, assuming we are talking about industry, there are a lot of options! FMCG? Retail? Energy? Pharmaceutical? Telecommunications? Engineering? Construction? Online? In Commerce and Industry, the sector list is endless and each sector has it’s pro’s and cons. Importantly, certain sectors fit with others easily and can give your CV breadth and increase your future career options. Others are more specialist in nature and much harder to move out of once you are in. Understanding the differences between sectors is vital, as moving into the wrong sector can make future career moves difficult. Here is a basic overview:

 

Sector

Natural follow on sector

Other possibilities

FMCG

Retail

Flexible, most sectors remain open

Retail

FMCG

Flexible, most sectors remain open

Pharmaceutical

Manufacturing

FMCG

Telecommunications

Downstream Energy, Utilities

High Tech

Oil and Gas

Construction, Engineering

Any asset and Capex heavy industry

Downstream Energy/Utilities

Telecommunications

Any low margin, high volume business

Engineering/Construction

Oil and Gas

Any asset and Capex heavy industry

Technology

Depends upon area of technology

Depends upon area of technology

Media/Hospitality

Retail

FMCG

Services

Specialist markets

Specialist markets

Aviation

Downstream Energy

Engineering, Asset heavy industry

Salary and Package?
Moving out of practice usually results in a pay rise. Pay depends upon the individual situation, but on the whole; Banking pays more than Commerce, Commerce pays more than Practice, and Practice pays more than Non for Profit! Salaries for ACA jobs can range from £40,000 to £55,000 for a newly qualified ACA and can be higher, usually with a package on top including car, pension, bonus. Salary depends on many factors (size of business, location, quality of your CV and experience, etc) but as a guide, my advice is to consider £45,000 - £55,000 as the likely range, with anything less than this as being low and anything more being high!

Hopefully this blog has been helpful. It is only a snapshot of the information you need when considering what is the best career path for a newly qualified ACA? The best way of finding out how to leverage your qualification is to speak with an expert about ACA jobs (I was bound to say that wasn’t I!) and so I encourage you to get in touch.

Kathryn Swan's picture
UK Lead for Accountancy Practices | Tax Audit & Advisory
kswan@morganmckinley.co.uk

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