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Putting theory into practice

Written by Alison Coleman - freelance business journalist, with experience writing for titles that include Forbes, The Guardian and The Times.

How accountancy trainees apply their classroom-based skills into practice at work.

Trainee accountants are under enormous pressure to balance their studies with demanding full time jobs. They also face the challenge of applying the theory they have learned during classroom tuition to the realities of their day-to-day work.

What they quickly realise, however, is that the professional training that will eventually lead them to becoming ACA, ACCA or CIMA qualified, is closely aligned with the work they carry out as a trainee, whether that is within an accountancy firm, a private sector company, or public sector organisation.

Nevertheless, starting a new job is a daunting process, particularly when it is for the first time. Kelly Feehan, service director at CABA, a support organisation for chartered accountants, says:

"While many trainee accountants join the workforce with great technical ability, some struggle because they lack essential soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, the ability to manage relationships, and the resilience necessary to pick themselves up after a difficult day in a challenging environment."

Throughout their training, students complete a number of placements across the company, giving them a broad overview of all accountancy related activities. While large firms tend to have a wider range of finance-related functions, and present more opportunities for trainees to apply their learned skills in the workplace, smaller firms often have more scope for tailoring the training placements so that both student and organisation gain maximum benefit. 

Being in the right firm is critical, both in terms of getting the right exposure and the right support, says Ross Andrews, manager at Wellers Accountants.

"The practical side of your work, which includes advising clients, will have considerable impact on your learning and knowledge. If you are in the wrong firm then you may not be receiving the level of client facing exposure you need to test and build on the theory you have learnt at college." says Andrews.

Trainees should ask what they can expect in their place of work, for example, what exposure they should expect across a number of industries, and how much responsibility they will be given at each stage of their training.

The structure of the team they will be in is another factor in ensuring a smooth transition into the workplace. Ideally there should be a mix of seniority levels to ensure that trainees can gain experience at every level of accountancy, as they progress through their training and exams.

One of the issues that trainees sometimes struggle with is the fact that the course materials are centred around large companies.

"The bulk of our clients use simplified reporting, and don't have the need for complex financial arrangements or transactions, so applying many of the topics or planning techniques can be difficult," says Andrews.

"In that sense it can be difficult to keep the rules fresh in your mind. However, being part of a medium-sized firm does provide trainees with an opportunity to work across the entire spectrum of business types.

"In our case, a lot of our clients are fast growing entrepreneurial businesses. You never know what will crop up, so it is useful to have the knowledge at the back of your mind."

Andrew McDaid, a chartered accountant at Mitchells Chartered Accountants and Business Advisors, says that most of their trainees find the numerical side easier to apply to their jobs than the theoretical side.

"The theory side does tend to be easier to understand in the real world, so while you are working it is important to ask your colleagues for practical, real life examples, which will help you to gain a better understanding of the theory." says McDaid.

One of the benefits of training as an accountant is the wealth of support that comes with it, from employers, training providers, and fellow students.

Rowena Barnwell, director of client services at online accountancy inniAccounts has over 30 years' experience in senior practice positions, and has supported many trainees.

She says: "Support from employers should go beyond just funding course or exam fees and providing study leave. It's about being in an environment that supports and rewards learning.

"In particular you should be able to ask questions and get advice from experienced team members, especially on topics that you're studying that don't form part of your day-to-day job.

"It is worthwhile building relationships with senior team members, be it on an ad-hoc, or more formal basis. Not only will this help you with your studies, but it may help further your career."

Given that training can take up to five years, the real key to success is self-motivation, as Ross Andrews recalls.

He says: "I just kept thinking of the end goal of qualification and the benefits that would bring to my career.

"I also found it really useful to be in a firm with peers in my own age group who were also training, and could support each other when things got really busy."

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