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The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland (ICAI), founded in 1888, looks after the interests of chartered accountants in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and its qualification is accepted worldwide.
Chartered accountants can take up a career in public practice, computer systems, management consultancy, management accounting in industry, commerce or the public service. About 40 percent of the members work in public practice, while the remainder is employed in finance, industry and commerce. Public practice, where groups or individual qualified accountants provide accounting services to the public (in the same way as solicitors provide legal services) has changed. In addition to the auditing and accounting functions, accountants are now called on frequently to advise on, and carry out, investigations of capital structure and needs, financial control systems, liquidation work, and analyses of the implications of taxation in investment decisions. Many are now making successful careers in financial services.
Chartered accountants are employed as specialists in most management consultancies, providing specialised advice on business strategy, production systems and financial controls. Chartered accountants are found on the boards of most big companies.
If you want to become a chartered accountant in Ireland you must complete a period of full-time education, the professional exams, and a training contract with a member of the Institute in public practice. The Institute also pioneered a small programme of training outside public practice the TOPP (Training Outside Public Practice) Scheme which has proved very successful. Selection for acceptance as a student is rigorous, and students must attend approved courses before they can sit the exams. The Institute’s own Centre of Accounting Studies takes the lead in providing high quality training with regular interim assessments.
The Final Admitting Examination for membership which is the culmination of the four-stage process is unusual because it is conducted on an open book basis. The Institute has also adopted a case study-based educational programme, in which students learn through graded case studies. All students must successfully complete the special practical computer program, Personal Computing for Accountants, before being accepted for membership.
The Institute issues a training guideline to firms taking on trainees, which recommends the kind of experience they should receive in auditing, taxation and financial accounting, including company secretarial practice, management information systems, personal and corporate taxation and valuations. Each firm taking on a registered trainee will be provided by the Institute with a training record, which must be authenticated, and must be submitted for assessment when the trainee applies for membership. The Institute also runs a similar programme to the ATT for accounting technicians.
‘The fact that the Institute is cohesive and confines its educational activities to the island enables it to keep in contact with its student population and to introduce initiatives which might not be easy on a larger canvas.’
David works as an auditor in a large international firm of accountants in Dublin. After taking a B.Com. at University College, Dublin, and a Master of Business Studies degree, he has just completed his three-year training contract.
I rather drifted into chartered accountancy because I wasn’t fully aware of what other accountants did with other accountancy qualifications, and only the chartered accountancy firms came round recruiting at college so it seemed the obvious choice. There was also some family pressure towards chartered accountancy. In spite of my academic qualifications, I didn’t have much idea when I started about what was involved: I couldn’t have told you what an audit was, for example. I think if I had my choice over again, I might have gone for a management accounting role, in the light of my academic performance at college. I think the prospects are better with a management accounting qualification if you want to go into industry. You can move faster up the ladder. You can see that the other accounting qualifications are making inroads into the chartered accountant’s territory.
The chartered accountant qualification is being seen more and more as an auditing qualification, a dissection of the past rather than a look into the future. An auditor is concerned with what happened in the past year, not with future planning, cash flows, budgeting.
What is good about my work is the variety of clients. I wouldn’t like to be going into the same office day in, day out. Every few weeks you move on somewhere else, so you are meeting different people in different environments. You wouldn’t meet such a wide range of people working in a company office, although after three years you can get rather bored with always meeting new people, and in such a large practice you don’t get much chance to build up friendships in the office.
Everywhere you go you are mistrusted at first. There are a lot of myths about auditors and it takes some time to persuade people to change their minds and accept you. You learn a lot about people, and you can often learn a lot more from the people involved than from the figures themselves. At the beginning you have to make sure they respect you, you can’t be too jokey and familiar. You must show from the first day that you are on the ball and that they can’t pull the wool over your eyes. Later on you can relax, and when you gain their confidence you can acquire all sorts of snippets of information. In one firm I went to, the managing director was very difficult, and wouldn’t allow us to go near the accounts staff, but I got into conversation in the pub with one of the guys there, and the little insights I picked up from him told me a good deal about the business. This eventually led on to a big investigation elsewhere, and I had the chance to go on this just because what I had learned had led to it.
I find it very helpful to sit down and talk to people. Very often, no one ever bothers to explain to them what is going on and how their work fits into the whole. But the people I work with seem to lose interest in people after a while. I suppose it’s because they meet so many, and also, as an auditor, you’re not so dependent on getting on with people in the way a salesman is, for example, although I believe that you do need their help.
I wouldn’t advise anyone who is an individualist to become a chartered accountant. Individualism is not liked. Chartered accountants are not the kind of people who would make a mad dash to a poetry recital. They would be more likely to be drinking a pint in the bar, and talking about rugby and soccer. Chartered accountants like people to conform to their norm.
There is a lot of satisfaction in being able to explain to the managing director of a small or medium-sized company, who may not have much financial expertise, just what is happening to the financial side of his business. People outside the profession tend to regard their auditors’ fees as a waste of money. All they get back is three paragraphs that may have cost them several thousand pounds. Yet the client service aspect is very important. If you can sit down and talk it through with clients you should be able to help them to improve their system and keep better checks on what is going on. This is particularly important when they are thinking of introducing a computerised system, so that they can analyse what computers can and can’t do for them. When computers are introduced someone has to convert the data for the computer to use, and this needs a lot of checking because of human error. That is why computers do not always mean cuts in staff there are people needed to enter data and check results, and these are manual tasks.
At least five or six people doing very boring, routine work such as processing invoices, preparing statements and chasing up documents. It’s what I call the new conveyor belt a side that is not often spoken about by the people who come recruiting for graduates; there is a big difference between what they tell you in a recruitment drive and what happens in practice.
I don’t agree with the notion that practical experience and study for exams should keep pace. You need to have the exam knowledge and you need the experience in the field, but not necessarily together. Like any other profession, accountants are clever at wrapping up what they are doing in impenetrable language, and then charging people for explaining it.
Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland
Although the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS) was established on behalf of Scottish chartered accountants, there is no nationality bar to membership, and its qualifications are universally recognised. You can now undertake the ICAS training programme in London through a full range of courses at the Scottish Business Centre in the West End.
All trainees attend block-release classes run by the Institute at one of its own education centers. The training programme lasts for three years and entrants to training must be graduates. The number of examinations which students must sit during the training period depends on the type of degree they have taken. Graduates whose degrees have been ‘Fully accredited’ by the Institute sit a two-part Test of Professional Competence only, while ‘qualifying’ graduates take additional Professional Courses and Examinations during the first years of training but exemptions are given for any accredited subjects taken at university.
Most students enter a training contract in an authorised training office of a firm of chartered accountants. TOPP (Training Outside Public Practice) places are also available throughout the UK. During the training contract students receive practical training in a variety of areas and, through working with clients of the firm, can see at first-hand how different businesses operate. In addition, students are given paid study leave to attend block release classes at the Institute to prepare them for any examinations they must take in order to qualify. The Institute training programme includes compulsory mock exams and home exercises which continually assess a student’s performance and can identify any problems at an early stage.
Christopher is a Scot who decided to do his Biology degree in London because all his friends were going to Scottish universities and he wanted to do something different. He then went to Aberdeen to do a postgraduate diploma in accountancy and is now training for the Scots CA with a large firm in London.
You’ve got to be quite exceptional to make your mark as an individual down here. I’m in my third year of training and am one of only three students training for the CA qualification. I chose CA because I wanted to do something more challenging than research or teaching which seemed to be the only options available to Biology graduates. I’m keen to move into banking or finance and I thought that London as a financial centre would offer me better training. I joined this firm because of the Scottish connection although I realise that a company as large as this would not suit all prospective CAs. The clients of a large firm might be more varied but there isn’t the same breadth of training. Someone wanting to be a traditional accountant tax, financial records, and so on might be better off with a smaller organisation.
I opted for this route to accountancy because the training seemed more personal, and the tutors are usually practising and therefore closer to the real world. Also the syllabus reacts to change more quickly. I see no disadvantage for a Scots CA student training in London. The company is keen that trainees pass their exams and gives us a lot of help. The personnel department has a six-monthly meeting with trainees to make sure we’re not going astray or have any grievances.
The department I work in is one of the company’s 40 mainline audit departments in the city. Our clients are high profile and news-worthy. I am currently a senior on a medium-sized bank audit, which involves tying in what the partners and managers want with the client’s reporting timetable, and liaising with the client’s internal auditors.
I am conscious of a strong element of competition among trainees which accelerates on qualification, but I attribute this to a ‘London effect’ to some extent. Yes, there is a real danger of feeling isolated but I have found the Institute very supportive. I also perceive a high regard for the Institute among firms and other employers. Scots are sometimes seen as more discreet, less flamboyant and perhaps more far-sighted.