Date posted: 05/04/2022 10 min read

Where are the CAs? Why accountants are on the move

As shuttered borders creak open, a wave of CAs are jetting overseas and others are looking for better opportunities locally.

In Brief

  • Many early and mid-career accountants are eager for overseas adventure after working from home during two years of COVID lockdowns.
  • CAs experienced in audit and financial reporting will find plenty of opportunities abroad.
  • The fierce competition for top talent has driven bumper pay rises.

By Sam McKeith

As soon as Australia’s borders opened last year, financial accountant Jane Carroll CA left her job at BDO in Brisbane and jumped on a plane bound for London. She hasn’t looked back.

“London is a great base for international travel, and others in my network – whom I admired and looked up to – had made similar moves over to London on the same visa in previous years,” she tells Acuity via email.

“I thought, ‘I’d love to do something like that.’ Experiencing being out of my comfort zone living overseas, learning new skills in life and work, meeting new people.”

Now settled in London at global asset management firm AllianceBernstein, the expat expects more Australian CAs to follow her lead and make the move overseas. After years of being cooped up working from home during the pandemic, Carroll says many early and mid-career accountants are now eager for overseas adventure.

Jane Carroll CAPicture: Jane Carroll CA. Image credit: Domenico Pugliese.

“My moving over was delayed about six months as a result of COVID-19. I imagine there are others in the same boat.”
Jane Carroll CA

“My moving over was delayed about six months as a result of COVID-19. I imagine there are others in the same boat who have been holding off the move until there was more clarity surrounding the situation,” she says.

Adding to the allure of the UK is Australia’s recently inked free trade deal, says Carroll. Under the deal, signed in December 2021, accountants benefit from mutual recognition of qualifications as well as expanded rights for those with working holidaymaker visas. That’s expected to increase the number of CAs – currently at about 1000 – that voyage to the UK to work each year.

As Carroll explains: “Australia and the UK have agreed to allow citizens up to the age of 35 to remain in the UK for up to three years under the Youth Mobility Scheme. “This is an increase on the original legislation allowing for two years under the age of 30, and extends the eligibility, which I think will see additional numbers making the move.”

A global explosion in demand for CAs

Carroll is at the vanguard of professional services workers likely to quit the antipodes as COVID-19 subsides and life and work slowly return to normal.

That’s the message from Amir Ghandar FCA, assurance and reporting leader at Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, who says one of the major drawcards of being a CA is its “truly global designation”.

“The opportunities to travel are incredible,” Ghandar says. “I would expect there have been many CAs looking forward to taking up this advantage while travel was restricted.”

He anticipates an especially high demand from overseas firms for Australian and New Zealand auditing and financial reporting professionals.

“Auditing and financial reporting are now, for the most part, globalised – in terms of the skills and technical knowledge needed. So CAs with this experience will be mobile and in demand just about anywhere,” he says.

“Almost every market overseas I regularly engage with has experienced a similar explosion in demand for experienced professional accountants and auditors. That includes the US, UK, Asia and beyond.”

Accountants are not the only white-collar workers looking to spread their wings in 2022. An online poll by Sydney-based recruitment firm People2People found that 40% of workers are looking to either switch jobs or make a career change. The main drivers are salary, followed by company culture, workplace flexibility and job security.

There’s a war for talent

Demand for accountants was already high during the pandemic, says Darren Banfield from executive search and professional recruitment consultancy Lawson Delaney in Melbourne. Now the contest for talent is even more intense.

“All of the financial measures around the stimulus were finance-led and therefore accounting firms needed bums on seats to actually do the work. There was a huge demand.

“What we saw last year was a lot of movement and a lot of overpaying for talent. Where everyone else has seen small uplifts to try to attract people in a tight market, accountants were getting 15 to 20% more last year than they were prior.”

Banfield says advisory and client-related roles, especially at the junior end of that segment, need filling. Gaps have been created in these areas thanks to the “tyranny of distance” of remote working during COVID-19, which has seen fewer workers skill up and transition from junior behind-the-scenes roles to senior positions.

“They haven’t been able to learn by osmosis; they’ve not been able to walk up to people’s desks while being in the business,” he says.

Banfield, who describes the volume of job vacancies for accountants as “huge”, says employers are jostling to secure top talent and it’s flowing through to salaries.

But he warns that pay rises in the industry are generally less generous than they were during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when demand for financial specialists soared. He says employers now “will pay where they need to but they can’t afford to overpay”.

A global phenomenon

Higher pay across professional services is not only an Australian phenomenon. Steve Evans, director of New Zealand firm Accountests, says the inability of CA expats to return home due to closed borders has put a squeeze on accounting talent in New Zealand. That won’t ease until at least April when the border is planned to open to inbound workers.

“It’s very much a candidate’s market and the candidates are calling the shots, so it’s only going to put upward pressure on salaries for sure.”

He adds that many local CAs who “hunkered down” in safe roles in NZ during the pandemic were now exploring opportunities overseas.

“Now they’re getting out and asking ‘do we actually break out and do something new and different?’ It’s going to be interesting to watch play out.”

Young New Zealand CAs, especially, are eager for moves to global hubs after spending two years behind closed borders at home.

“That’s the chatter among that work group… now the opportunity to get out is coming, that’s loud and clear,” says Evans.

For those CAs ready to head off, the prospects look good. In January, The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) predicted that accountants in the UK were heading for “bumper” pay rises as firms grappled to hold onto top talent. Citing government data that showed job vacancies in October to December 2021 rose to a new record of almost 1.5 million, it forecast that salaries for white-collar professionals could lift by as much as 25% in the first three months of 2022 as the Omicron wave eased.

Salaries in the US, too, have been on the rise as companies battle to keep and hire workers in a historically tight labour market. KPMG earlier this year announced an almost US$160 million investment in salary increases, boosting pay for about 30,000 of its workforce, many of them in the US. It may be a sign of things to come.

Can we lure CAs to work here?

Of course, as borders open, another tactic to access top talent is to lure ex-pats home. Samuel Cheng CA, who headed the Strategic Programme Management Office for Prudential Hong Kong for two years, made the move back to Australia this year. He’s now working with KPMG in Sydney.

After years in the Asian financial hub, Cheng was happy to return to relatively opened-up Sydney from the still largely locked-down Hong Kong.

“For me, it was more [about] planning for the family,” he says. “I always had plans for 2024 to bring the kids back to Australia … so we just accelerated it.”

Samuel Cheng CAPicture: Samuel Cheng CA. Image credit: Derry Ainsworth.

“I always had plans for 2024 to bring the kids back to Australia … so we just accelerated it.”
Samuel Cheng CA

For many CAs in Hong Kong, as well as other Asian centres such as Singapore, living space at home is “very limited”, he says, which adds to the stress of working from home with a family. With no dedicated home office, Cheng had to work out of his bedroom and use a “traffic light” system so he wasn’t disturbed by his kids.

“It wasn’t ideal compared to what you can have in Sydney,” he says.

Ghandar adds that situations like Cheng’s are an opportunity for firms to reactivate the pipeline of offshore talent that was so much a part of the industry’s resourcing model pre-pandemic.

Bringing in staff from offshore was a mainstay of “auditing in Australia and New Zealand for many years, particularly around major reporting dates such as June 30,” says Ghandar.

“This has meant an exchange of talent, with many CAs taking up the chance for secondments and shorter-term assignments overseas, but also many of their colleagues from abroad visiting us during our busiest months.”

Lawson Delaney’s Banfield warns that plugging gaps with offshore talent is easier said than done.

Many businesses, he says, have become “buyer beware” when it comes to sponsoring workers from overseas because of the very high costs involved. He notes that five years ago sponsoring a worker to come to Australia cost about A$2000: today it’s closer to A$14,000.

“The sponsorship pathways within professional services probably started drying up three to five years ago,” he observes. “Larger firms have secondment programs and can transition workers on a global scale but smaller operators, if they’re paying an agency fee and paying sponsorship, it’s a huge financial hit.”

When pay is no longer king

CA ANZ’s Amir Ghandar FCA says while “remuneration is important” to keep staff from moving on, there are other things companies should focus on to attract and retain talent.

“Remuneration is only one part of the picture, alongside work practices, diversity, career development, role clarity and, critically, a sense of meaning and purpose,” he says.

“We’ve also seen that in addition to overseas experience, many CAs are just as interested in local experience that broadens their horizons; for instance, being able to build skills in technology or sustainability.”

Michael Croker CA, CA ANZ’s tax leader in Australia, advises looking at digitalisation options to upskill existing staff – something he believes will be “really key” for many practices in the period ahead.

Bulking up investment in digital tools before skills shortages bite will make compliance tasks easier and allow talented employees to be in the field engaging clients. This strategy, he says, will ensure employees “feel that they’re getting better work, more satisfying work, which will develop their own knowledge and skills”.

David Yin CA, chief executive of Singapore-based video game company Storms, says in the current environment the onus is on hirers to go the extra mile to keep valued staff.

Yin, who’s been working outside Australia for about 15 years, says while COVID-19-related remote work has relieved him of the burden of much business travel, it’s also changed staff expectations.

Storms has a work-from-anywhere policy that Yin says is keenly taken up by many of his staff. “I think that CAs should be given the choice whether they want to go in or not to go in... a lot of CAs want that freedom and flexibility,” he says.

David Yin CA, CEO of Singapore-based gaming start-up StormsPicture: David Yin CA. Image credit: Leslie Heng.

He adds that forcing workers into the office post-pandemic is a sure-fire way to lose good staff.

“CAs, especially the millennials, the younger ones, they’re now so used to the flexibility of working from anywhere,” he says. “Companies that mandate that you have to come back to the office are going to see movement of CAs away from those companies.”

Given his focus on accommodating staff needs, Yin carefully plans office days with his team, usually when complicated tasks need to be knocked over.

“I do occasionally, looking at massive and complex financial models, ask them to come to the office and whiteboard ideas,”

Yin says. “Most of the time there’s no issues whatsoever; we’ll just spend a day looking at the financial models and projections.”

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