How to attract graduates to your practice

Content RS recruit grads

Young talent can bring energy and new ideas to small- and medium-sized accountancy practices. But how can these firms sell themselves effectively to millennials and gen Z?

The right graduate hire can bring enthusiasm, fresh thinking and energy to small- and medium-sized practices (SMPs). But attracting them can feel like an impossible task. What are millennials and gen Z looking for in a graduate training position? And how can your firm ensure you’re speaking a language that engages them?

While the aspirations of generations may change, some things do not and a strong, established training programme will be a fundamental draw for graduates. SMPs should think carefully about whether they can provide this. Alastair Barlow, founding partner of accountancy, advisory and business analytics start-up Flinder, says it was tough to train two graduates in a young business.

“It is quite a lot of hard work if you do not have the bandwidth, a structured training programme in place, the right hierarchy and enough people in the business,” he says.

PJCO Chartered Certified Accountants  in south England has spent the last decade honing its graduate recruitment offer. The first step into training university-leavers came in 2010. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Big Four accountancy firms reduced their graduate intakes, says partner Peter Jarman, which allowed his firm more access top graduates.

After this, he says, it was about establishing the best training programme the firm could offer that would guarantee graduates would pass the ACCA exams. It became apparent that online courses offered by the likes of Kaplan and BPP suited the firm’s graduates better than classroom courses. While the quality was the same, there was less travelling, no residentials and the ability to pace learning, for example by rewinding lectures.

“The online courses became a key part of making sure that every graduate got the very best opportunity to pass every exam first time,” says Jarman.

Now, the training programme speaks for itself and the firm does not need to actively market to graduates, he adds. “We have built up this reputation that if you come to us, we will get you through your ACCA exams and at the end of the three years of training, you will be running a portfolio of 100 or so small-business clients.”

This early responsibility is another sell to graduates. Being part of a cloud-based firm helps trainees at Ad Valorem. The firm has basic companies on the cloud that trainees “can cut their teeth on”, says director Nikki Adams, giving them a chance to get client contact early in their careers by helping with tasks such as using Xero.

But it is not just the early responsibility that SMPs offer – they are also a gateway into working with the many small businesses across the country. While PJCO does not actively market to graduates, Jarman says the firm is always in the background explaining to graduates the different experience they will get working for them than the Big Four.

While the training programme will get you ACCA qualified, like the larger firms, the work will differ. If graduates want to work with small business and business owners, the SMP route will give more opportunity for doing that – alongside the increased responsibility. If, on the other hand, trainees want to work with governments or FTSE100 companies, they should head to the Big Four.

But working with smaller businesses can give young professionals a chance to make an impact early. In big practices clients tend to be other finance professionals so the work can be more technical, says Adams, whereas supporting smaller business owners gives you a broader range of experience. You can see the difference you are making, particularly with the digital transformation, she adds. “That is really exciting for young professionals because they can immediately see the impact of their work on those companies.”

The calibre of clients is another selling point, says Katy Cobbold, head of HR at accountancy firm Wilson Wright. “There can be an assumption with people who do not have that much experience that the large firms get more interesting clients,” she says.

But being comfortable about sharing the individuals and businesses they service – for example through videos on the website and YouTube channel – has helped attract candidates, she adds The reason those clients stay is that they want a personal service – if you work for the firm, you also enjoy that more personal, family feel.

The working environment has also become a big pull for young people, says Adams. Her firm has the feel of a tech company, she says: it is relaxed, the team can wear casual clothes and listen to music. This extends to the office building too – it is no longer a case of SMPs being stuck is small, stuffy spaces. Ad Valorem, for example, recently moved into barn conversion.

Wilson Wright has also recently invested in a bright, open-air office with break-out spaces and a social kitchen area. “We are aware that to engage with and retain staff, we have to offer them the type of working environment that they hear about and perceive with tech businesses and larger firms,” says partner Warren Baker.

Alongside graduate misconceptions about the working environment and old-school technology at SMPs, Nathan Keeley, business services partner at accountancy firm MHA Carpenter Box, says young recruits also think they will enjoy more job security in the Big Four. But this is not necessarily the case, he argues, as large practices tend to take on many graduates knowing that only a few will be kept on post-training.

In his firm, he says, the only time trainees lose their job is if they cannot pass their exams. Moreover, as a financial crisis looms due to the global pandemic, he remains optimistic about job prospects. “We have not made a redundancy in the last two recessions and we are hoping not to through Covid,” he says.

SMPs are thriving, dynamic places for graduates to carve out their careers – selling this can help to show graduates just how much opportunity the sector holds.

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