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Why you should look beyond education in your recruitment process

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Chartered Accountant Sarah Wynne explores why you shouldn't only be recruiting staff with degrees in your practice.

19th May 2021
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The other day I was telling someone why A-Levels and degrees are not important to me when recruiting. Out of interest, I thought I’d take a look at my staff’s educational qualifications, and what I found was amusing. 

Out of a team of eight, only one of us is a graduate. One team member achieved a single A-Level (grade D) before dropping out of education. She later completed her AAT while working evenings and is now a Chartered Accountant and a Director in our firm.

Another team member left education after her GCSEs, in which she achieved 3 Bs and 5 Cs. One of them sat only three GCSEs due to chronic illness as a teenager. Another was homeschooled and had no formal qualifications until she started work. One dropped out of university in her first year, and one has two A-Levels but no degree.

I’m proud to be on this list of educational underachievers; I flunked my A-Levels because I was too busy having fun. I went to university but dropped out, and I eventually discovered accountancy by accident.

But, we’re a brilliant team! We have a sense of humour, work well together and achieve great results. I actually believe I have a stronger team than I’d have had if I’d placed an emphasis on educational qualifications – and I have great staff loyalty because I’ve been willing to give people an opportunity when other employers might not have.

When I’m recruiting, I want to find people who understand people, understand customer service, and have an entrepreneurial business streak. I think these types of people make better accountants – and I think people who have worked rather than going through university naturally gain more of those qualities.

My team have worked in lots of different environments, because most of them have been working since the age of 15. Most graduates haven't had a job before the age of 21, and so they've got no idea of the kind of commitment that’s needed. Having a full-time job feels like a big deal to them because they’re used to 12 hours of lectures a week with lots of free time. They want to be paid more, they want more perks, and they don't want to go to Tesco to buy toilet roll for the office. 

Early in my accounting career, I interviewed for a job with a top four accountancy firm. By this point I was an experienced accounts senior and had already done my first year and a half of my Chartered Accountancy studies, passing every exam first time with high marks. However, the firm didn't employ me because of my A-Levels and lack of a degree. 

There are many, many reasons why people don’t go to university that have nothing to do with aptitude and intelligence. Maybe they did not have a supportive home background or school system, or had health problems that stopped them from progressing along the traditional GCSE, to A-Level, to university educational route.

I’m also very aware that some people don’t have degrees because they can’t afford them. People with accountancy degrees can now come out of university £60,000 in debt. 

If I went back in time now, I'd do my GCSEs then go to work at an accounting practice and do AAT in the evenings, before joining the ACA’s fast-track route. By the time I reached 20 I could be a fully qualified Chartered Accountant with no debt whatsoever and four years of accountancy work experience behind me. Would that make me a weaker recruit than a graduate? I think you know the answer - so take a closer look at your next batch of applicants. You may be surprised by what you find.

These are the things I look for when recruiting:

  • If someone sends in a CV without a cover letter, they won't get an interview. 
  • The cover letter needs to be well written and informative. I want to know why they want to work in an accounting practice. I also want to know if they can string a good email together. 
  • If they haven’t bothered to research us as a firm, I'm not interested.
  • The applicant’s personality is hugely important. Do they have a sense of humour? Would they get on with us and the team? We often throw in the question: if you could be any kind of biscuit, which would you choose? If they laugh and/or ask why we’ve asked that question, that’s a good sign. Accountancy is a stressful environment and if we can't laugh together about the problems we face, we’d be in one big boiling pot of stress. 
  • Customer service skills also matter. Has the applicant worked in a hotel on the front desk, been a waitress or waiter, or worked in pubs or retail? All of this can be relevant experience, as can hotel housekeeping, cleaning and caring. These roles tell me someone is not too precious to do the menial tasks and errands that can come with a junior role.
  • If an applicant doesn’t have questions for me at the end of the interview, that's a fail. The only thing that's worse than no questions is, ‘How many holidays do I get?’ or ‘What's the pay?’ If those are your two top priorities, you're not for us.
  • It’s also interesting to see what people wear, especially if you've told them not to wear a suit. Some people can't do that!
  • Has the person taken the initiative to approach you? Normally when we come to recruit, I go to a folder in my emails in which I’ve kept all communications from people who have written to me asking about work. 
  • Be flexible. Don’t rule out people with children just because they want to be able to do the school run, for example. You could miss out on your perfect candidate if you’re not willing to meet them halfway.

Replies (4)

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By AndyC555
19th May 2021 15:35

"The applicant’s personality is hugely important. Do they have a sense of humour?"

I was asked in an interview what I thought my biggest weakness was and said that I thought I was too honest.

"I don't think honesty is a weakness", said the interviewer.

"I don't give a f*&£ what you think", I replied.

I didn't really.

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By Paul Crowley
25th May 2021 12:51

Brilliant

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By Ammie
25th May 2021 10:40

Sarah, couldn't agree with you more.

I believe the value of degrees has been greatly watered down over the decades. Qualifications were primarily an indicator of work ethic and responsibility and were a main gauge to assessing ones potential aptitude. However, I am seeing many graduates who are in dreamland as to their value and are looking for a fast track highly paid role they do not have to "sweat" for.

Business is business and employees that add value are the most valuable and not always those that are successful in the exam hall. The only problem being, it is very difficult to weed out the potential from the non qualified and non exam holders, hence why exam and degree success is a starting point of assessment.

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By Paul Crowley
25th May 2021 12:54

I do not employ many, but I employ a person, not not a qualification.

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