Class struggles stifle accountancy recruitment

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New research claims young people are steering clear of professions commonly seen as being dominated by upper and middle class employees. Is accountancy doing enough address social mobility?

The UK has still not shaken off its class-based prejudices and it's stifling the economy, according to new research by the graduate recruitment platform Debut. The company found a third of young people surveyed for its “social immobility in graduate recruitment” report are put off joining middle and upper-class businesses.

Meanwhile, it’s a different story for those from “better off backgrounds” who are 80% more likely to be in a professional job than their working class peers. The costs of the 2.5m working class people disenfranchised from joining these businesses equates to £270bn per year, according to Debut's research. 

Meanwhile, two-thirds of young graduates are so stifled by the bourgeois expectations of their potential employers that they feel they have to fundamentally change who they are to make a good impression. 

James Bennett, CEO of Debut, called on UK businesses guilty of this “professional exclusion” not to miss out on the huge talent pool of diverse young people. “It is imperative that businesses must do more than just pay lip service to diversity and inclusion and start taking real action.”

Accountancy in the grips of a recruitment crisis

These results are particularly concerning for the accountancy profession which is in the grip of a recruitment crisis. The need for employers to cast a wider net is backed by early insights from the 2019 Accounting Excellence Awards, where the challenges of recruitment plague even the most innovative echelons of the profession.

The results of the survey suggest that the profession should do more to dismiss the archetypal image of the pinstripe suited accountant. But for some time now, however, professional bodies have tried breaking the “not for me” stigma that may prevent a diverse talent pool. The ACCA released the Purpose and Profession report in 2018 which found that in the past the profession had been a “closed shop” for those who “don’t fit the mould”.

The ACCA’s efforts to make accountancy a genuine option for people from all backgrounds mirrors the intention of ICAEW’s president Paul Aplin. In his inaugural speech in June 2018, Aplin put social mobility to the top of his agenda, putting his focus on the barriers that are still perceived as blocking many people’s path into the profession.

“I want to see more young people – especially those who think, or have been allowed to think it isn’t for them – have the chance that I’ve had and discover the ACA as the key to unlocking a great career that can change their lives too, and help them, in turn, change the lives of others,” he said.

As the social immobility report says, an important step in bridging this gap is through school and college outreach such as work experience programmes and targeted internships for those from less advantaged backgrounds.

It’s not just about class

The problem, however, is not consigned to class, with 61% of the surveyed young people wanting businesses to do more to hire people from diverse backgrounds.

It’s a point brought home in the Debut social immobility report by the assistant HR manager at accountancy firm BKL, who pointed out that 19 of the 20 company partners at the firm are male.  

EY’s student employer brand and attraction manager Andri Stephanou also picked up on the importance of the visibility in opening the doors to potential candidates from diverse backgrounds: “It’s really important for people to be able to see different role models in practice, it supports ambition and positive aspirations, for instance thinking ‘I can do this too, I can achieve success’.”

Meanwhile, diversity within the profession was the subject of an intense debate earlier this month, as an all-male Accountex panel stoked controversy before the event had even started.

Accountants don’t recognise this immobility

For the most part, the AccountingWEB community didn’t recognise any of this social immobility in the profession.

Gainsborough feels the profession is open if you have qualifications, but the problem in young people take up is down to their motivation. “I went to a careers event at a school recently for 14-16 year old students. Most of them just wanted careers in drama or sports - lots of glazed over eyes when accountancy came up - nothing at all to do with class.”

Susanna Russell-Smith has not encountered class bias from the firm she joined 50 years ago, although at the time they did only have one woman partner. “They were still a bit doubtful about employing women though, she said, “and never allowed me to go off on an away audit in case I had too much fun with my fellow male articled clerks out of hours.”

However, Paul Benny does see the need for more role models in the profession. “If ‘minorities’ consider the profession and see that it is populated by people who are not like them, most will look elsewhere. We lose out on talent, and society remains or becomes more segregated,” he said.

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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23rd May 2019 22:40

Survey by company whose business is centred around solving recruitment problems finds recruitment problem.

Actual accountants in these forums do not see this problem.

I know which source I trust more.

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24th May 2019 11:02

What utter bilge!

Young people who have enjoyed the benefit of parents who place high value upon education, discipline and learning, invariably produce a majority of offspring who DO become graduates in some meaningful academic discipline: whereas the ill-educated illiterate and innumerate may will attend a "University" and finish up with a meaningless degree and then go on to work at Tesco, MacDonalds et al.

Fact is, like it or not, circa 70% ++ of secondary school leavers are functionally illiterate, lack any social graces and are unemployable.

One of my closest friends has three kids; the two elder are both Chartered Accountants: yet the eldest (girl) read chemistry at Durham and switched. Durham is the alma mater of the parents, both taking honours BSc.

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By mkowl
24th May 2019 11:04

Well I was a Northern lad from a council estate so I can recall the recruitment type questions of the Big 6 30 years or so ago definitely assumed a social class. No I didn't go to a school that did head boys, no I didn't have parents that would help fund that summer trip to the USA that looked so good on your CV, part time job yep they were all actually taken by the wives of the steelworkers and miners who had lost their jobs in the years before.

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to mkowl
28th May 2019 10:28

Can definitely relate to this. Didn't think I would fit in with the big firms after attending an interview with Coopers, felt most out of place. Once I was qualified I changed firms and in the interview was asked what school I went to. I naively named my comprehensive school in Suffolk and was met with rather blank faces :)

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By k743snx
24th May 2019 12:56

And next weeks extract from Socialist Worker is....

You really have to smile when politicians witter on about "social mobility" then in the next breath its "tax the rich". I'm from a working-class background - never had a problem. But then, I'm one of the CIMA/CGMA riff-raff, so perhaps its different for me.

“It is imperative that businesses must do more than just pay lip service to diversity and inclusion and start taking real action.”

Maybe they think such lip service will give them a quiet life, so they can get on with really important things like running their operations effectively, with people selected entirely on merit.
Strikes me its politicians and teachers influencing the rising generation and putting this guff into their heads with class/racially loaded language that are the real issue.

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24th May 2019 12:35

"Meanwhile, two-thirds of young graduates are so stifled by the bourgeois expectations of their potential employers that they feel they have to fundamentally change who they are to make a good impression."

I'd love to see the question in the survey that created this statistic!

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24th May 2019 12:50

Lets face it, there is a class war within accountancy itself. Going through various roles in business and the profession I found as a CIMA person I was not considered as good enough by ICAEW members, who also looked down on ACCA members. ICAS members had a slightly different approach as they have a different training system. CIPFA members were also clear about their own superiority. (Following the takeover by AICPA, I have dropped CIMA and gone to AAT, despite the derogatory views of that qualification which I have heard expressed by members of ACCA, ICAEW, etc.) We really should get our own house in order, as well as encouraging younger people to realise that drama and sport, etc., just do not pay.

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to dmmarler
24th May 2019 13:43

This made me smile, I pictured the classic sketch with John Cleese as a Chartered accountant, Ronnie Barker as an ACCA and Ronnie Corbett as an AAT.

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to Vaughan Blake1
24th May 2019 15:07

I am CIMA. I get a pain in the back of my neck.

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to dmmarler
25th May 2019 14:10

Not forgetting, the original sponsors and supporters of the AAT were, err, ICAEW and ACCA!

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By tedbuck
24th May 2019 13:00

I should have thought that this was a load of b******s as the LibDem chap so eloquently put it - what is his name? Is it Vince or something like that?
In this part of the midlands people in accountancy certainly don't appear to be upper crust but are in fact reasonably diverse by any standards.
Education is however a driver and those from 'bad' schools will obviously struggle.
A university teacher to whom I spoke some while back said that with a lot of students he had to teach them what they ought to have learned in sixth form before he could even start degree work.
Diversity is a great idea but it should start in primary school or better still with the parents. Children starting school now are not always toilet trained and often have to be literally spoon fed. So how are the teachers supposed to teach them?
The problem is being looked at from the wrong end.

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to tedbuck
24th May 2019 13:17

You don't want to look at the problem from the wrong end if there has been no toilet training.

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By tedbuck
24th May 2019 13:01

I should have thought that this was a load of b******s as the LibDem chap so eloquently put it - what is his name? Is it Vince or something like that?
In this part of the midlands people in accountancy certainly don't appear to be upper crust but are in fact reasonably diverse by any standards.
Education is however a driver and those from 'bad' schools will obviously struggle.
A university teacher to whom I spoke some while back said that with a lot of students he had to teach them what they ought to have learned in sixth form before he could even start degree work.
Diversity is a great idea but it should start in primary school or better still with the parents. Children starting school now are not always toilet trained and often have to be literally spoon fed. So how are the teachers supposed to teach them?
The problem is being looked at from the wrong end.

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24th May 2019 13:45

Frankly this article contains a great deal of Horse feathers.
Clearly there are no hard and fast rules, but my experience of five decades in the profession, thirty years as an active youth leader, and grandfather of eight: elicits the following observations:
1)
The time with cost, including student loans and the like,
required to reach the status of fully qualified accountant, is not cost effective, when compared to average available financial reward over an ordinary lifetime.
2)
In most cases unless the clerk has some financial backing he or she will not afford the course. There are no bursaries or scholarships routinely available for accountant students.
3)
This is not a politically correct game. Whatever else accountancy is, it is founded on the concept of use and analysis of objective fact. This that 1 +1 =2, not almost 2, or on a rainy day, 3.
Much of current teaching eschews the concept of exactness in work. Nevertheless, in this respect accountancy is similar to music. Except and unless the student is prepared to undertake the hard boring preparatory graft he will never make heavenly music.
4)
Similarly many through poor teaching cannot string two words together. I have seen this in my own family. One grandchild attended a great state school, one attended a nominally equal state school, wherein at an open day, the head stood up and said "With our computers we will soon no longer need books".
5)
It is not class warfare to expect staff to respect our customers and dress accordingly at least to the standard of Marks & Spencer, or EasyJet staff.

Now, clearly this does not include all persons in the age group, or even a majority, but it includes enough of them to make recruitment into the profession a difficult process.

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24th May 2019 13:52

Reading this I can picture John Cleese as the ICAEW, Ronnie Barker as the ACCA and Ronnie Corbett as the AAT.

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By tedbuck
24th May 2019 14:27

I should have thought that this was a load of b******s as the LibDem chap so eloquently put it - what is his name? Is it Vince or something like that?
In this part of the midlands people in accountancy certainly don't appear to be upper crust but are in fact reasonably diverse by any standards.
Education is however a driver and those from 'bad' schools will obviously struggle.
A university teacher to whom I spoke some while back said that with a lot of students he had to teach them what they ought to have learned in sixth form before he could even start degree work.
Diversity is a great idea but it should start in primary school or better still with the parents. Children starting school now are not always toilet trained and often have to be literally spoon fed. So how are the teachers supposed to teach them?
The problem is being looked at from the wrong end.

Thanks (0)
avatar
By tedbuck
24th May 2019 14:29

I should have thought that this was a load of b******s as the LibDem chap so eloquently put it - what is his name? Is it Vince or something like that?
In this part of the midlands people in accountancy certainly don't appear to be upper crust but are in fact reasonably diverse by any standards.
Education is however a driver and those from 'bad' schools will obviously struggle.
A university teacher to whom I spoke some while back said that with a lot of students he had to teach them what they ought to have learned in sixth form before he could even start degree work.
Diversity is a great idea but it should start in primary school or better still with the parents. Children starting school now are not always toilet trained and often have to be literally spoon fed. So how are the teachers supposed to teach them?
The problem is being looked at from the wrong end.

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By ASF
24th May 2019 14:54

Of course the accounting community wouldn't recognise the social immobility. For the most part they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Turkeys never, ever vote for Christmas, and this is just a mirror of the other professions where the very same issues are at play. Never going to change, where one group of people have much to lose. Creating an illusion and aspiration of social mobility is a veneer and not a solution. Can't imagine why anyone could be surprised at the conclusions. Accounting firms can all express concern at the recruitment problems this may cause them, but it helps keep salaries, profits and bonuses up!

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By Dandan
24th May 2019 17:52

This is the sort of article that I would have expected to read 20 years ago. Things have move on quite a lot.

These days, you would often feel you were among a cast of East Enders instead of an accountancy firm or lawyers or bank.

It has its good and bad points.

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24th May 2019 21:45

When I started in 1958 KPMG gave articles on ability, and the majority did not have a university degree but came from school. Indeed , the senior tax manager did not even have a qualification, and was also a woman. She was treated as a senior partner.
The senior partner at BDO Stoy Hayward was not a graduate, but a polish refugee.
It is mostly in the 21st century that we became so obsessed with financial background. ( often confused with social class).

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25th May 2019 08:48

On the matter of leaving the chartered ranks to join the AAT I was forced to this some 30 years ago when ACCA refused to give me a practicing certificate. The AAT welcomed me as a licenced member and I have successfully run my AAT practice since that time.

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25th May 2019 09:11

All articles from AccountingWEB, except those explicitly for entertainment, should be precise, factual, and fair. There should be a sincere effort to get to the truth rigorously.

For a sensitive social topic like recruitment the need for rigour and fairness is just as great as ever. While it is damaging to society to underestimate the extent of unfair discrimination, it is also damaging to overestimate it, or to blame the wrong people, or incorrectly identify any mechanisms that might be at work.

Regardless of its intentions or conclusions, the article above is frustratingly poor. For example, there is a claim about the economic cost of something that is not explained or critiqued in any way, and that's just not good accounting practice! I hope AccountingWEB will try to do better next time. This is not the first poor article in the general area of 'social justice' from AccountingWEB and I hope that the sometimes angry and frustrated comments from readers are taken as a signal that this style of writing is not helping.

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29th May 2019 10:29

Could these kids not leave Comprehensive with O levels, go to FE for a couple of A levels and then slog it out at evening classes for 5 years via AAT & ACCA like I did?

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