Which of these statements is correct?
- Accountants sit at a desk and look at numbers all day.
- You have to go to university to become an accountant.
- You have to be a maths whiz to be an accountant.
- Accountants only need to be good with numbers.
- You don’t earn any money while you’re training.
- I'll only be able to work at an accountancy firm.
The answer: none of them.
And there are a few other things we bet you didn’t know about accountancy. For instance, they work in pretty much any industry you can imagine, helping charities, start-ups – and even working for pop stars! Some of them get to travel. And forensic accountants even get to go CSI for a living (well, not quite…)
'It's time to relearn everything you think you know about careers in accountancy'
So let’s bust our way through some of the biggest myths – and take a look at how to become an accountant.
So what do accountants do? Well, in a nutshell, accountants help organisations make decisions about their finances (that’s money to you and me).
But in truth, accountancy isn’t just one job – it’s a vast area of work made up of a varied and wide-ranging assortment of tasks, which include:
- Checking that accurate, up-to-date records are being kept of the money an organisation has spent and earned. This is called auditing.
- Preparing reports on an organisation’s financial health for managers, or the board of directors (the people with overall responsibility). Not everything can be measured in numbers – for example, the value of an organisation’s brand.
- Giving advice when a company wants to buy or merge with another company, or sell bits of their own business. This is known as corporate finance.
- Helping companies that are having money troubles to save cash, or raise it by selling things they own. This is insolvency.
- Making sure a company is paying the right amount of money in tax to the government, keeping things legal, on-time and ethical without overpaying or wasting money.
- Looking into any financial misrepresentation (dodgy business) that might be going on, and working with lawyers to help end disagreements. This is known as forensic accountancy.
- Dividing up the money a company has available over a certain period of time, and giving it to different parts of the business to spend. This is called budgeting.
- Finding out if there are any threats to a company from a financial point-of-view, and giving advice on this to help managers make decisions. We call this risk.
If you think that’s a lot of work, you’ll be relieved to know that not all accountants carry out all these tasks. Accountants tend to specialise in one of three areas – although they might well move between them throughout their career:
- Public practice accountants work for companies which offer their services to “clients” (customers), which could be individuals or other companies.
- Business accountants carry out a financial role with their employer, which could be a private company, a charity or not-for-profit organisation, or a government agency.
- The financial services sector helps people and organisations manage their money. Accountants give advice – to help banks make sensible investments, for example. Check out our dedicated article if you’re not sure what we’re talking about.
While many accountants do go to university, the most important qualification is to become a chartered accountant. This is a seal of approval which tells the world that you’ve gained the technical know-how to do your job to a high standard.
While it’s not a legal requirement in the UK, any accountant worth their salt is registered with one of the following bodies:
- Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW): You’ll become a member of the Association of Chartered Accountants (or ACA).
- Association of Certified Chartered Accountants (ACCA): You’ll become a chartered certified accountant (or ACCA).
ICAEW’s ACA is available as a school/college leaver programme or higher apprenticeship – which may make it simpler to get started straight from school or college.
With the ACA, you’ll complete:
- Workplace experience: 450 days with ICAEW. This won’t necessarily be with an accountancy firm – ICAEW work with 3,300 employees of all shapes and sizes, including University of London, Sheffield Hospitals Charity, International Alert, Next, British Airways and the Treasury.
- Up to 15 exams.
- Skills development.
- Training in the ethics of accountancy, to help you distinguish right from wrong when it comes to financial matters.
Check out this infographic for a closer look at the three main ways you can become an accountant when you leave school or college:
Accounting technician fast-track scheme
One in 12 chartered accountants starts out as an accounting technician. Accounting technicians carry out administrative tasks like paying invoices and preparing information for chartered accountants.
ICAEW work with an organisation called the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), offering a scheme which allows accounting technicians qualify as chartered accountants in two years by using their existing knowledge and expertise to fast-track their way through the ACA.
This may well be the biggest accountancy myth out there!
To become an accountant, you’ll need a maths GCSE at grade A*-C. That’s because you need to have a good grasp of numbers and be able to solve problems – as you do in many jobs. To put it in context, you’ll also need a A*-C-grade GCSE in English.
And you certainly don’t need a maths degree, because you’ll learn to develop your numeracy in ways that are specific to the job during your training.
"I used to think accounting was quite limited – that it was all maths-based. But I've found that's not true at all: there's a lot more to it than that. In auditing, for example, it's not so much about maths as problem solving and people skills."
— Martha Jary, ACA trainee
Want proof? Here's how degree subjects break down among graduate accountants, courtesy of ICAEW:
There are plenty of important skills we bet you don’t consider when you think about accountancy. According to ICAEW research, accountants listed the following as the four most important skills in their job. And we don’t see “number-crunching” in there, do you?
- Communication: You’ll need to get finance-related information and advice across to laypeople, sometimes with little financial understanding. You may have to gather information from people from all a range of departments in different companies, and from all walks of life.
- Likeability: You’ll need to get along with your colleagues of course, but if you work with clients, you need to be able to talk about sometimes-difficult issues while keeping your relationship intact.
- Leadership: Whether you’re top of the pile or not, all accountants bear a lot of responsibility because of the ethical dimension of the work they do. You need to have a strong sense of direction – and of what’s right and wrong – and be able to act on it.
- Commercial awareness: You’ll need to develop a good understanding of your employer’s industry – and if you work with multiple clients, you’ll also need to get to grips with their fields of work quickly.
You may have to work your way up to the £84,500 average accountants can expect to earn in the UK, but never fear – you’ll be paid throughout your training.
- £12,000-£18,000: What you can expect to start on if you do a school leaver programme.
- £30,300: Average starting salary for graduates starting out in accountancy.
Although the salary’s higher, a degree isn’t necessarily the best route if you’re already dead set on becoming an accountant. A school/college leaver programme or higher apprenticeship is a good way to start earning straight away while avoiding student debt.
This couldn't be further from the truth. The ACA is your gateway to just about any employer – anywhere in the world – you can imagine.
- Every company needs an accountant! Whatever your passion, there will be a job for you. You could even work for a football club, a fashion designer or a cosmetics company.
- Accountants play a big role in charities and our public services. If you want to make a real difference, you can't go far wrong with accountancy.
- Want to see the world? The ACA is recognised in 155 countries, so there could be a well-paid job waiting for you wherever you set your sights.
- Work for an accountancy firm that provides services to other companies and you could get the chance to see just about any business – from high-street names to local businesses to pop stars – from the inside.
- You could end up setting up your own company. Accountants are trained in business and get to see the way companies work first hand, meaning you could be pretty handy when it comes to running your own.
The life of an auditor is more varied than you might think. Over the past few years, I’ve visited construction sites, counted cars in hail storms, and have even found myself scrutinising Girls Aloud’s cosmetics line!
— Catherine, ICAEW chartered accountant
Now we’ve busted those accountancy myths, we hope you’re inspired to learn more about how to become an accountant. Why not head over to ICAEW’s website to discover more about the routes open to you?
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