It may not conjure up the glamorous images often associated with star fund managers and stellar investment analysts – the lurching Lamborghinis, the speeding Sunseekers – but fund accountants are very much in demand within the financial sector in Scotland at the moment.
Over the last decade many of the global third party administrators (TPAs) – Citi, HSBC, State Street, BNP Paribas – have set up shop in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Their commitment to the Scottish market has been rewarded with huge tranches of business from many of the country’s leading investment houses.
But along with the success has come the challenge of keeping up with demand. Recruiting talented fund accountants, and in the high numbers currently required, is in many ways the critical factor in ensuring TPAs continue to flourish in Scotland.
Put simply, demand is outstripping supply. Behind this trend lurks the dual problem of prominence and perception.
As a profession fund accounting suffers from a significantly lower profile when compared with other areas of the investment industry. What profile it does have is damaged by an unfair and unhelpful comparison with its more illustrious bedfellow – fund management.
It could also be argued that professionally fund accounting falls between two stools: newly-qualified accountants often see it as falling short of their ambitions, while budding investment gurus are drawn to the bonuses and cache associated with fund management.
There is certainly a great deal of hard work involved, and the data input element of the role may seem unappealing to some, but there’s a lot to find attractive in carving out a career in fund accounting – especially if the right talent is matched with the right company.
To their credit, many TPAs already have in place work experience, internship, apprenticeship and graduate programmes. Of particular note has been the work done by Citi and Morgan Stanley – in partnership with Career Academies UK – to support business courses at Edinburgh College (Citi) and Anniesland College in Glasgow (Morgan Stanley).
But places are limited and current numbers are likely to be insufficient to meet future demand. More apprentice schemes need to be developed for school leavers, as well as increasing the places available on graduate programmes.
TPAs would do well to look at how retail banks and life companies have in the past taken school leavers and graduates and helped them develop life-long careers. A ‘job for life’ may no longer exist, but it is still an ideal companies would do well to strive for.
Last but not least, for both entry-level and experienced fund accountants, employers need to succumb to the inevitable but painful economic logic of supply and demand: they need to increase current salary levels so they are competitive with accountancy roles across financial services. This will have an enormous impact on the health and success of the profession.
If already an experienced fund accountant, a candidate can essentially choose where they work and on what terms. For aspiring fund accountants my advice would be to utilise their summer holidays as best they can.
I know of one candidate who, while at school, pestered two well-known TPAs until she secured summer internships with each. Once graduated she was able to demonstrate previous experience – and a real interest – in fund accounting. This meant that she was already in a great position.
But the ability to ‘tool-up’ ahead of the first step on the career ladder requires being aware of the industry in the first place. And this brings us back to the problem of profile.
Experienced recruiters have a great deal of expertise in working through structural and cyclical employment cycles and managing the skills shortages that come with them. But they need to be more proactive and less passive when offering strategic advice to clients. Clients, too, need to listen more and act on the counsel they are being given.
Recruiters also need to think more creatively about potential candidates. Many successful fund accounting careers have been developed from others sectors and branches of finance.
And recruiters shouldn’t be squeamish about suggesting the use of contractors to clients. They can bring a wealth of experience and sometimes lead to a reduction in project costs and implementation times.
Scottish Investment Operations (SIO), a professional body led by Alan Thornburrow, is doing invaluable work in promoting the industry and raising professional development standards.
In particular it has been instrumental in establishing the Diploma in Investing Accounting, a qualification crucial in bridging the skills gap while also enhancing the professionalism of fund accountants and other investment operations professionals.
The SIO has also been helping raise the profile of the industry in schools, colleges and universities. But the SIO’s resources are limited. Education authorities need to do more to keep their students informed of the career opportunities which currently exist and are likely to exist in the future.
The current shortage of fund accountants stems not from one source but from several. Only by tackling the issue from a number of different angles do we stand the best chance of sustaining the success of the investment operations industry in Scotland.
Fund accounting may never loom as large in the public’s imagination as fund managers, but its role in the success of the investment industry is just as important.