Career Advice Job Market Trend Report

Catch them young if you can

The recruitment season for next year’s graduate intake is now in full swing, but for major accountancy firms the task of attracting top students starts well before they reach their final year.

With internships, student clubs, and invitations to a variety of on-campus seminars and special corporate events, the process begins early and is designed to give both employer and prospective employees the chance to make the right choice.

“I explain to students honestly and objectively that there are the Big Four firms and other opportunities,” says Philip Tsai, audit partner for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, who has long been involved in his firm’s rolling recruitment campaign. “In particular, I tell them if you are working eight or more hours a day, the people you are with will play a big part in your personal and professional development.”

As an employer, Tsai says, it is obviously important to offer a clear path for career advancement as well as extensive training which exceeds what is needed for a professional qualification. There should also be opportunities to deal with clients in different industries and the private and public sectors, and to gain experience in diverse areas such as audit, enterprise risk, tax and financial advisory.

Recruits must feel the corporate culture is right for them as this is often the most vital factor for them to be effective. “I ask students to explore this aspect carefully,” Tsai says. “We have counselling and a buddy system to help with the transition from college to working life, but the key thing is to let students understand us before joining.”

There is a special Deloitte Club which up to 50 accountancy students can join in their first year at university. This opens the door to summer internships, organised training in technical and soft skills, regular social gatherings with staff, and practical advice from a personal mentor who is a senior manager or partner.

“To an extent, we treat students as colleagues,” Tsai says. “We want them to see what Deloitte is like and understand what is happening in the profession. They may act as campus ambassadors, organising programmes for other students on topics like CSR [corporate social responsibility], visiting old people’s homes or supporting charities we have links with.”

With plans to continue hiring 300-plus graduates a year, the Hong Kong office cannot just rely on this source of talent. Current trends, in fact, show an increasing number of non-accountancy majors now joining the profession with degrees in subjects such as English, engineering, biology and even philosophy. After completing a basic conversion course, nothing stops them qualifying in around two years and potentially moving up to partnership after 10 or 12 years.

“I welcome the trend,” Tsai says. “As more young people with diverse backgrounds enter the profession, they bring knowledge of other disciplines which is always handy, and which they can use to benefit clients in different industries.”

Agnes Chan, regional managing partner, Hong Kong and Macau, for Ernst & Young (E&Y), also backs the shift in emphasis towards a broader-based intake. In part, this is to achieve the numbers required, but also ties in with the “be yourself; create your future” theme of this year’s recruitment drive.

The stress is on valuing individuality and personal strengths, while giving the support and professional training to make the most of those talents. New joiners with a business-related degree may have an initial advantage, but a graduate proficient in, say, Japanese, would have a clear head start if later assigned to Japan Business Services.

“As a global firm with a large international client base, we need people with different skill sets and knowledge,” Chan says. “This is important, too, for our career-mobility programmes, which cover staff at all levels and offer exchanges and international assignments [in different cultural environments].”

Before applying to a firm like Ernst & Young, students should be sure of their reasons and priorities, Chan adds. Salary should not be the main motivation and no one should expect an easy ride. Starting packages may be better than in other sectors, but the work is challenging and the hours can be long.

“Applicants should be mentally prepared and willing to work hard,” Chan says. “We are keen to hire candidates looking for a career, rather than just a job. For this, excellent communication and language skills are also essential.”

The EYAcademy, a structured programme targeting local university students, conveys that message to each year’s “cadets”. In parallel with their undergraduate course, they can do internships, receive mentoring, and take part in a range of team and networking activities.

‘Last year we had 120 cadets, and 55 were offered internships in our Hong Kong or mainland offices,” Chan says. “Those who successfully complete this can fast-track onto our Hong Kong graduate programme as a staff accountant.”