Taking Stock: Current State of Play for Career Accountants

Despite recent tech sector layoff and ongoing economic uncertainty, the job market for accountants remains robust.

Here, in the latest article from the new Barden & Chartered Accountants Ireland Career Guide 2023 Ed Heffernan, Managing Partner, Barden Ireland, explains why demand is still high…

This time last year, as fears for the economic implications of the Ukraine invasion began to emerge, Ireland’s post-COVID job market had just begun its recovery. Twelve months on—despite the recent spate of tech sector lay-offs, and the impact of rising inflation rates and energy price hikes—demand for accounting professionals remains constant.

“We’ve seen a fair bit of change in the wider job market over the past year, but employers will always need good financial talent,” says Ed Heffernan, Managing Partner at Barden, the partner-led expert recruitment firm.

“At the start of 2022, there was an expectation as to how the market would evolve over the course of the year, but, because of the subsequent impact of various geopolitical events on the global economy, it became clear that ambition and market realities were not aligned for some companies. For us, demand continued to accelerate from January through to September. We were busier and busier as the year went on. Then, from October onwards, we started to hear news of job cuts in the technology sector.”

The Market Reality

Despite the recent deluge of negative headlines, however, it’s important to look at the reality of the situation “in context”, Heffernan says.

“Good news stories aren’t as eye-catching as bad news stories. People are programmed to worry; it’s human nature. What we’re actually seeing are some of the biggest players in the tech space announcing a global reduction in headcount of about 10 to 12 percent. They are, by and large, cutting headcount in the areas most businesses look to when they need to cut costs— sales, business development, marketing and maybe also talent and HR teams.”

Demand in the job market overall may be down, but supply for key skill sets has not waned, creating a “counterbalancing” effect.

“I would say job numbers overall right now are down probably between 16 and 18 percent quarter-on-quarter, but the drop is mostly down to fear. Employers are holding back on making hiring decisions because of uncertainty,” says Heffernan.

“It’s the same ‘wait and see’ effect we saw during the pandemic and that creates pressure in the workplace because teams are having to wait to fill vacant positions. Then, what you get is this rebound in the market, because organisations realise they have to forge ahead and start hiring again.”

Demand for Accountants

Regardless of wider trends in the job market, demand for accountants remains consistent, Heffernan says. “Companies always need good financial talent. That’s a given because finance is just so fundamental to how companies function.”

In terms of the skill sets most in demand among employers recruiting for accountants, Heffernan sees “two extremes”. “On one side, there is always strong demand for organised and technically oriented professionals from larger firms or who have risen up within the group functions of listed multinationals,” he says. These are the people that run the console, coordinate the internal and external reporting and lead the audit activity. Without them the business just does not function.

“Group functions like Flutter, Ardagh, CRH and Dalata always have a demand for accounting talent. It’s where many of their future leaders learn how the business knits together, so it’s an ideal first step for an early career accountant with ambition.”

On the other side, there is consistent demand for professional’s adept at business partnering.

“These are the accountants who can ‘translate’ what the numbers mean for people in the business outside the finance function,” says Heffernan. “They can participate in the wider decision-making process, and in shaping strategy, rather than simply producing a spreadsheet and leaving it at that. In terms of industries, pharma and tech companies dominate the landscape. In terms of functions, it’s group entities and shared services centres that typically employ the largest numbers of talented accountants. Scale brings opportunity and that’s not changing any time soon.”

Proactive Approach

For ambitious young professionals keen to move ahead in their career and avail of the right opportunities at the right time, Heffernan advises a proactive approach.

“I see a lot of people who are reactive, rather than proactive, in terms of how they approach the job search process. They look to move jobs only after something has happened, so they’re fundamentally not in the driving seat,” he says.

“If you’re ambitious and you want to go places with your career, you should be thinking ahead from the get-go. Most accountants move roles two to three times in their first five years’ PQE, either internally or externally. That’s just the way it is.”

“Your first port of call should always be the internal option. Leveraging your track record and leaning on established relationships within your organisation, is nearly always the best way to shape your next move. Failing that, there is of course ample opportunity externally to leverage your PQE to create value in a different setting.”

Changing Employers

Getting ahead in your career isn’t always just about staying with the same employer and hoping that your loyalty will pay off in the long run.

Moving organisations tactically can also deliver tangible results. “It’s really important to be market aware,” says Heffernan, “you need to understand what is going on and be able to benchmark your own position and progress on a regular basis, so you know you are on the right track.”

He advises professionals to take a proactive approach to shaping their own career path, utilising contacts and connections to keep ahead of the curve.

“I think people sometimes underestimate just how important their career is to their overall level of wellbeing. We spend up to 80 percent of our waking hours working alongside our colleagues, whether in person or remotely,” says Heffernan.

“The most successful CFOs I know constantly have their ear to the ground. They’re calling me every 12 to 18 months to find out what’s going on in the market. Being market aware is what the smart, ambitious people do. That puts them in the driving seat career-wise, because they’re making informed decisions about their future—and that’s incredibly important.”

Expert Support

Accountants should also make full use of the range and quality of the advice and support on offer to the profession from specialist recruiters, Heffernan says.

“The accounting community is one of the best served communities when it comes to recruiters and advisers active in the space,” he says.

“There are some incredible people you can get objective information from. My advice is to make full use of this – not all professions have the same advantage. If you expect to be engaging with recruiters at a point in the near future, reach out before you are actively looking for a job. It’s at that stage that you could find yourself getting the most value and clarity from the relationship because the waters won’t be muddied by the requirements of one specific role,” he says.

“You’ll be getting objective advice and that could really stand to you from the point-of-view of long-term career planning. That’s how we built Barden—we are advisory first, an ally to the finance professionals we work with. We’re where accountants go before they start looking for a job”.

Like to Know More or Are You Considering Your Next Step?

Ed Heffernan is Managing Partner of Barden Ireland. Reach out to Ed at ed.heffernan@barden.ie for further insights on the  market and to see how he, and his team, can help you identify the best next step in your professional career.

Source: Career Guide 2023 by Chartered Accountants Ireland and Barden

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