Accountancy firms and similar professional services businesses (of all sizes) are not only competing for market share but also for the human resources necessary to deliver their services. Throughout the last ten years or so, there has been a constant scenario where local accountants’ supply was less than the demand.
As a result, there has been a steady increase in the number of foreign accountants who work in Malta. This in itself is not a negative development as these professionals bring with them not only good technical skills but a variety of soft skills influenced by the culture they come from. This mingling of the cultures, if handled well, can enrich the work environment both at a firm’s office and at a client’s workplace from where the staff may be working.
We should nevertheless understand why, despite the fact that we have around 200 annual accountancy graduates from University or through professional qualification, we still have a shortage of local accountants.
A main reason is likely to be the many local career opportunities created for the profession in these past 15 years, within many different sectors including the financial services and remote gaming sectors. These sectors not only helped to create direct employment but also indirect employment through the increased demands made on professional services firms.
Another reason, in my view, could be the fact that the percentage of female to male students in accountancy courses has increased over these past years. Women who have children tend to drop out of the professional working force for some years – and some, when they do return, opt for reduced working hours; others for less demanding careers. The solution to this is not easy, as its cause is one that is deeply embedded in our social values. Clearly though, employers have to come to better grips with this factor in order to retain resources. Turning this challenge into an opportunity is no mean feat, but when one considers that retention of resources is increasingly becoming less arduous than sourcing new resources, it is well worth the effort.
And why are we not attracting a higher percentage of male students to the profession? Quite frankly, I don’t know, but it would be interesting to find out. I believe that as a profession, we don t want to be branded as a ‘female’ (or male for that matter) profession – I’d much rather we are branded as a profession that attracts amongst the best and brightest in the student population.
One direct consequence of the mismatch between supply and demand was the development of financial packages by employers that bear little or no correlation between value and output. Although this is a bonanza to professionals in the short term, it will hurt the profession in the longer term as professionals may choose to ‘settle for average performance’ (it is well paid anyway) rather than ‘excel and do one’s best’. In the longer term, this trend could also have a negative impact on values and ethics as financial remuneration becomes the overwhelming factor in one’s decision to acquire and retain posts.
The mismatch could also be leading to unorthodox – some would argue out of the box – practices by accounting firms in their bid to secure as many fresh graduates as possible. One practice I do not agree with and which in my view is rendering a disservice to the profession is one in which students are being offered a contract of employment by professional firms when still in the first or second year of their five-year University course. This may be discouraging some from doing their utmost and settling for average or sometimes even mediocre performance as their employment is ‘guaranteed’.
Clearly, we as a profession need to continue with our efforts, indeed step these up, to attract more students – and bright ones – to our profession. Initiatives that aim to spark interest in young ones such as career exposure programmes, career fairs, talks by professionals and visits to educational institutions provide a direct opportunity for the profession to promote itself. These efforts should be supplemented by efforts done at professional firm levels where such activities should not only serve to promote employer brand but also the profession in general. Employer-directed sessions with career counsellors and educators would also help in increasing the understanding of the ‘real’ challenges in the profession.