By Sarah Hathaway, head of ACCA UK
Social mobility and access to the professions has been headline news following publication of the latest government report, recently, along with serious criticism of the careers advice offered to school pupils. The original idea for creating a Professions Week as a collective response to the challenges from professional bodies came over a year ago – 15 bodies came together to make this happen, and I was delighted to be chairing the group.
As Baroness Shephard said at the launch event at the House of Commons, it’s rare for professional bodies to collaborate in this way. So why bother? Between us the professional bodies involved have nearly a million members and students in the UK; ACCA alone has over 140,000. That’s a powerful army of professionals who can help spread the message to young people that a career as a professional is both attractive and accessible. Part of the aims of the week were to mobilise our members to do just that – go into schools, colleges and universities and talk about their career and experiences. I have met many ACCA members who have come through a non-traditional route into the profession, and they have stories that will be inspirational to young people making big decisions about their future. ACCA was founded on a principle of open access, and we still hold true to that value today – it’s a real differentiator for us.
One of the other aims of Professions Week was to make the government aware of the role professional bodies play in providing a link between schools and businesses, helping to get the right advice out there at the right time. ACCA delivers public value, it’s embedded in our qualifications, standards and ethics. Providing access to a career as a finance professional to talented people, regardless of their background, benefits the employers we work with and ultimately their customers and the wider public.
So what do young people think about a career as an accountant. Research was conducted as part of professions week with 1,200 young people from less advantaged backgrounds. The good news is that 90% of those we asked have heard of careers in the financial areas, such as an accountant or tax adviser. And 39% of those said they have a very good idea what an accountant does, with 54% saying they have a rough idea. This sounds positive, until we explore some of the other outcomes of the research. 23% have someone in their close network who is an accountant – the highest of all the professions listed. So where do the other 70% get their information from, and is it reliable? 45% think you need a university degree for a financial career, which of course isn’t true, so the right information definitely isn’t getting through. The other challenge is that 18% are interested in a career as an accountant – that’s a relatively good proportion given the number of professional careers we’re talking about, but if it’s founded on misconceptions, how can we reach these young people? And more worryingly, only 26% think they could become an accountant, even if they wanted to. The final hurdle is around their perception of a professional career. Thankfully, more respondents said it was exciting than those that said it was dull. But there are a lot that think it’s linked to paperwork and not people…most accountants I know say communication skills are paramount.
What we have a mixed picture, with a real desire to increase the visibility of the accessibility and attraction of an accountancy career. Last week was the start of a move to play an even greater role in reaching these young people with the right messages, and I know we can build on this. At an ACCA members event last week I put a call out for every member to play a part. We have provided the tools we have the right qualification, we have the right history…now is the time to take action.