Personal File - 2004 job market - New year, new job?

The job market seems to have been in the doldrums for the last two years. Is an upturn wishful thinking or a real possibility?

January is the time, traditionally, when we all dust off the crumbs of turkey and Christmas pudding and take a long, hard look at our lives.

The result for many will be the realisation that it may be time to move jobs. The depressed economic conditions and recruitment market of the past two years, though, has meant that while many accountants may have been thinking of moving, few have taken the plunge.

The past two years have been difficult for the accountancy and finance recruitment market. It is estimated that around 10% of all finance positions in the City of London were lost during the economic downturn. Accountancy, traditionally a recruitment sector that was able to ride out economic difficulty, seemed to suffer almost as badly - although the jury is still out over whether things were ever as bad as they appeared.

According to Reed Accountancy, total recruitment advertising in accountancy and finance at the beginning of 2002 was 40% lower than the previous year.

Even so, not all recruiters agree that this downturn was the worst for the sector so far. 'I don't think it was as bad as people say,' said David Hughes, director of ECHM Executive Connections. 'It certainly wasn't as bad as 1991 - that was absolutely desperate and the only thing that kept us going was the demand for temp staff to deal with the BCCI liquidation.

I think the problem this time around was that the downturn was a culture shock for a lot of people - everyone got so comfortable with the level of demand in recent years that they were caught unawares.'

Steve Carter, managing director of Robert Half Finance & Accounting, agrees. 'People tend to talk the market down,' he said. 'The economic indicators have not indicated that the market was as bad as everyone said. Our clients have been cautious but good people are still finding jobs.'

Press coverage of redundancies, particularly among the Big Four, certainly added to the air of concern around accountancy recruitment over the past year or so. The demise of Andersen also saw a huge number of highly qualified accountants suddenly flood the market. But the problems were not entirely economic - the Enron and WorldCom scandals have undoubtedly had an effect on the image of accountants in general. Some recruiters argue that the problems have resulted in a new focus on risk management skills, while others manage to see the opportunities in every event.

'The changes in corporate governance mean that the Big Four, for instance, can't mark their own homework any more,' said Carter. 'In some ways it has created much more work for accountants, particularly for subsidiaries of US companies that have to comply with Sarbannes-Oxley.'

Guarded optimism

So what does 2004 hold for the recruitment market? The message from recruiters could best be described as guarded optimism. 'Things are certainly picking up, particularly in the last couple of months,' said Hughes. 'The market is still quite discerning, though. Candidates tend to be hired to do jobs that they've done before, so a medium-sized widget manufacturer hoping to recruit a senior accountant, for instance, will be looking for a senior accountant in a smaller organisation in a related sector, or someone who has been number two in a medium sized business in the same sector. Most companies can be that precise and still get away with it.'

Carter points to the number of companies reporting good results as an indication that the recruitment market is about to pick up considerably.

'There will be a flurry of activity once people get a sniff of the job market picking up. Put yourself on the market too early and you could get demoralised, but leave it too late and you will end up with some stiff competition.' He admits, though, that many accountants will be caught in the Catch 22 situation of lacking the right experience to find their dream job. 'Employers are prepared to pay for experience and not for potential. It's a real Dutch auction for candidates, picking up the right experience.'

Robert Half has already seen some good opportunities and movement in the technology sector and 'patchy' activity in the retail sector. Large cities outside the South East have also seen good demand for quality candidates.

According to Hays Accountancy Personnel's latest salary guide, 'salaries are unlikely to return to the spectacular increases of two years ago - at least for some time yet, although rises are predicted as departments begin to recruit again'. Hays believes that the 'specialist areas will really take off' as firms try to create revenue stream outside audit and mainstream tax and identifies VAT as an area where there could be particular demand for good candidates and as a result, higher than average salary increases.

Perhaps the strongest indication of an improvement in recruitment is the news that the Big Four are beginning to look for students and qualified accountants in large numbers, for the first time in three years. 'Our student numbers decreased by 15% over the past three years,' said Keith Dugdale, director of recruitment and resourcing at KPMG. 'We're hoping that they will increase in 2004, although that is very closely linked to how the market performs.' The Big Four have cut back on recruitment to such an extent recently, though, that Dugdale acknowledges that the firms will be 'chasing people' once the market picks up. 'We're all concerned that it will be difficult to get the people we want. It's going to be very competitive.'

He added, though, that KPMG is not alone in looking for very specific skills. 'We're looking at gaps in the business and trying to recruit in a narrow and focussed way. The picture now is around niche specialist areas - we'll be looking for a particular skills set.'

Good news for all?

Industry insiders, though, believe that the firms have cut back too sharply on qualified staff and students in the past three years and are now racing to recruit good quality candidates in even basic areas such as audit and tax. That is certainly excellent news for anyone thinking of looking for a new job this year. The signs are that demand is growing, although it will be more difficult for anyone to switch specialties or sectors - the best tactic for anyone hoping for a change of direction may still be to consider temporary appointments in order to gather invaluable experience in a different sector.

After three years when employers have been in control, the balance of power seems about to shift towards the candidates. Most recruiters are predicting a steady improvement in the first three months of 2004, followed by a strong increase in available positions in the second half of the year. But more positions mean more competition. The key to finding the best job, as Carter pointed out, will be timing: 'The labour market is all about movement. Once people start to move, it creates a market.'

Job adverts start on p 172


Overall, the situation looks good for jobseekers. Across the country, Reed Accountancy asked it managers which markets they thought were flourishing and which were floundering. This is what they said:

1. 'PQ Accountants in the financial services industry are in high demand, especially those within insurance.'

2. 'The ACA qualification is in high demand here, and specialist tax skills.'

'Those at the PQ level are in high demand, and commercial retail accountancy is strong growth area at present.'

3. 'Candidates with initial purchase ledger experience are very marketable at the moment as there is a strong need for junior roles across the region'

… and public sector and practice fields are feeling the strain:

1. 'There is a significant lack of suitable skilled candidates within the Practice field, which means employers are willing to pay more and offer better packages than many candidates realise.'

2. 'The public sector is the toughest area at the present where good candidates can command a premium and are in high demand'

3. 'There is a real skills shortage facing London public services.'

4. 'There is a notable shortage of skills available for credit control and payroll functions.'

5. The specific skills and experience the public sector requires makes for a tall order for many candidates.'

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