So you thought that working for a Big Four accounting firm was all lovely and cuddly compared to working for an investment bank? Wrong. Working for a Big Four firm can be harsh. Especially when it comes to passing demanding accounting exams and working at the same time.
One London-based accounting recruiter, speaking on condition of anonymity, says accounting firm trainees often buckle under the pressure of working full weeks and studying in their spare time. "Since the financial crisis, the Big Four have become far less tolerant of failure," he adds. "You now get one or two chances to pass the exams, and then you're out."
This might be the case at some large accounting firms, but it's not so at KPMG. There, Michael Walby, Director of Professional Qualification Training, says requirements to pass the ACA exams within a specified number of attempts have been dropped on a trial basis. The new policy came into effect in January and will last in autumn, when it will be reviewed for the 2015 intake, says Walby.
KPMG's rationale for this leniency is that it wants to attract juniors from a broader range of backgrounds, some of whom might not be used to churning out first time exam passes. "We don’t a culture of fear around failure and under-performance," says Walby inclusively. "You don’t need to have a lot of energy tied up in worrying about whether you'll have a job at the end of it when you’re sitting the exam. That energy is better to put to use in studying."
For Walby, insisting that KPMG's new recruits pass the first or second time is unnecessarily negative. "I have a fundamental belief that creating a learning culture for success means focusing on incentives for success and not penalizing failure," he expounds. "Failure in exams can be part of the learning process if they reflect upon why the failed. Having a blunt tool is a waste of talent in my opinion."
Gavin Aspden, director of qualifications at the ICAEW which runs the ACA accounting exams, suggests KPMG might be at the vanguard of a whole new approach to exam passes in the Big Four. "There's increasing recognition of the value that juniors bring to organizations," says Apsden. "Firms are recognizing that they're investing a lot of time and effort in training juniors. Rather than using a black and white decision-making process to get rid of people they are a lot more considerate than they used to be."
Pass rates for ACA exams are high in any case. For some exams, Apsden says they can be as high as 90%, while for others they're as low as 70-76% (which is still high compared to the CFA). However, he admits that the ACA qualification - which takes between three and five years to achieve - has become harder: "When I qualified 18 years ago, there were 4,000 pages of technical material to study, now there are 10,000."
For all the nurture-talk, junior accountants still need to put in the hours assimilating this. Like junior bankers, they will therefore need to sacrifice sleep and fun. "You're going to be working full time and studying for a qualification that is at Masters level," Apsden concludes. "Work life balance is always going tricky in those circumstances - but it's not about the next three years of your life. It's about the next 35 years of your career and the sacrifice is very worth it."