Chartered accountancy offers a prestigious career with lots of opportunity for progression and high earning potential

As a chartered accountant you'll give advice, audit accounts and provide trustworthy information about financial records. This might involve financial reporting, taxation, auditing, forensic accounting, corporate finance, business recovery and insolvency, or accounting systems and processes.

You'll have the choice of many different settings to work in, including public practice firms and industry and commerce, as well as in the not-for-profit and public sectors. Working strategically, your aim will be to maximise profitability on behalf of your client or employer.

Responsibilities

As a chartered accountant, you'll need to:

  • manage financial systems and budgets
  • undertake financial audits (an independent check of an organisation's financial position)
  • provide financial advice
  • liaise with clients (individuals or businesses) and provide financial information and advice
  • review the company's systems and analyse risk
  • perform tests to check financial information and systems
  • advise clients on tax planning (within current legislation to enable them to minimise their tax liability) and tax issues associated with activities such as business acquisitions and mergers
  • maintain accounting records and prepare accounts and management information for small businesses (accountancy)
  • advise clients on business transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions (corporate finance)
  • counsel clients on areas of business improvement, or dealing with insolvency
  • detect and prevent fraud (forensic accounting)
  • manage junior colleagues
  • liaise with internal and external auditors (where applicable) and deal with any financial irregularities as they arise
  • produce reports and recommendations following internal audits or public-sector audits
  • prepare financial statements, including monthly and annual accounts
  • arrange financial management reports, including financial planning and forecasting
  • advise on tax and treasury issues
  • negotiate terms with suppliers.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for accountants vary depending on the location, sector, size and type of firm. Graduates entering the career can expect to earn salaries of up to £25,000.
  • The average earning potential (salary + bonus) of chartered accountants with two to four post-qualification years of experience is around £56,000.
  • After 5 or more years, the average annual salary for a chartered accountant in business rises to £90,200, with an average yearly bonus of £20,600.

Careers in banking and capital markets tend to attract the highest salaries and larger employers generally pay more than smaller ones.

Salary packages may include benefits such as bonuses, profit-sharing schemes, medical insurance, pensions and car allowances.

Income data from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) and the Stott and May Salary Survey 2015. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours vary depending on the role and the organisation, but typically aren't 9am to 5pm. Working extra hours in the evening and at weekends is quite common in order to meet deadlines, particularly in larger firms. As a trainee, you'll usually be given time off in lieu of any overtime worked.

Flexible working arrangements are usually possible after qualification. You could also work independently by setting up as a sole practitioner.

What to expect

  • Jobs are available in most areas throughout the UK, but are more commonly found in cities and larger towns, where higher salaries are typically earned. Post-qualification opportunities exist overseas. There are also training opportunities overseas with ICAEW.
  • Due to the high-profile, high-responsibility nature of the work, the dress code is usually formal.
  • Support and advice for women entering accountancy is offered by Women in Banking and Finance, which aims to empower individuals to reach their full potential. There is currently still a gender pay gap.
  • Travel within a working day is frequent in audit work, which is carried out mainly at client premises. Absence from home overnight and occasional overseas travel is possible.
  • Working in other areas, such as tax, or in smaller firms, tends to be more office-based with less travel.

Qualifications

Entry is open to graduates of all disciplines, as companies offering training agreements are interested in graduates from a range of backgrounds. Entry to the profession without a degree or HND might be possible, but graduates will have the competitive edge over other candidates. Candidates with a degree are generally preferred to those with an HND by larger employers.

A Certificate in Finance, Accounting and Business (CFAB) serves as a useful step between a degree and a training contract. Alternatively, some employers train students to do the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) accounting qualification, which does not require a degree but can lead on to training for chartered status.

As well as a number of other bodies awarding other accountancy qualifications, there are three separate professional institutes of chartered accountants in the UK:

All chartered accountancy qualifications lead to the designation 'chartered accountant', and each has equal status, attracting equal recognition. Candidates who qualify through ICAS or Chartered Accountants Ireland receive the designation CA (chartered accountant), while those who qualify with ICAEW are designated ACA (associate of the ICAEW).

One of the most difficult parts of becoming a chartered accountant is securing a training contract with an employer approved by one of the institutes. You will need good mathematical knowledge and ability, as your numeracy skills will be tested as part of the selection process.

The training contract lasts for three to five years, so it's important to consider the package of training, leave and pay offered by your employers before you commit, as managing professional study while working can become demanding.

Competition is tough and the selection process is rigorous. It's best to start applying in the autumn term of your final year at university to ensure yourself access to the biggest range of opportunities. Look out for the larger firms doing presentations on campus at recruitment fairs.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • general business interest and awareness
  • self-motivation and commitment, in order to combine study while working
  • communication and interpersonal skills
  • organisational and time management skills
  • a methodical approach
  • IT proficiency
  • strong analytical and problem-solving skills
  • numeracy
  • leadership qualities and effective teamworking skills
  • motivation and initiative
  • integrity and trustworthiness.

Work experience

Contact accountancy firms to ask about opportunities to gain relevant pre-entry work experience, such as vacation work, work placements or shadowing.

Employers

You can work in any sector and in any size of organisation and although the majority of training opportunities for chartered accountants are in public practice. Before applying to a firm, check that it's authorised by one of the relevant institutes.

Having such a wide choice of employer means you can choose your preferred working environment. Larger firms, where the vacancies are concentrated, have offices in major cities and towns around the country and overseas, whereas smaller firms may be concentrated in a particular location or specialise in a particular type of client.

Employers include:

  • public practice: including international accounting organisations or smaller accountancy firms, known as small and medium practices (SMPs) - all providing a variety of accounting and business services to clients
  • industry and commerce: including major commercial companies, such as those in the manufacturing, retail and telecoms industries
  • public sector: including local and central government, educational institutions, charities and not-for-profit organisations. Historically, the public sector has not been a big recruiter of chartered accountants but opportunities have increased in recent years.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

There is a strong emphasis on continuing professional development (CPD) in this career. Once you've qualified as a chartered accountant, you'll need to keep up to date with technical and business issues. Your membership with a professional body will help facilitate this.

Your employer will also provide in-house training on technical and general skills to help you perform well in your job and there may be opportunities to specialise in certain areas, specific to the firm you work for.

Kaplan suggest learning a language (as accountants with language skills are in short supply), or doing some work for a charity to enhance your skill set.

Career prospects

The majority of chartered accountants train in public practice and the first three years are typically devoted to achieving the CA or ACA qualification. During this time you will build up experience and take on additional responsibilities, including supervising junior staff and liaising more directly with clients.

It may be possible to complete a secondment, where you'd spend time in another area of the practice to broaden your experience, or even work for a period overseas. You would usually remain with the same employer throughout the training contract.

Progression is often structured and opportunities for development and promotion are plentiful. You may become a manager two years after qualification and a senior manager three years after that. Progress to partnership is competitive but is achievable between eight and 15 years after qualification. In small firms, progression may be more rapid. It's possible to attain the position of finance director of a major company within 10 to 15 years of qualification.

After training, around half of all qualified chartered accountants work outside public practice, in commerce, industry, financial services, banking and the public and not-for-profit sector. Typical roles at the newly qualified stage include internal auditor, financial accountant and business analyst.