Reinvent your career by specialising
It’s a decision accountants often face, especially if they work for medium-sized and large practices.
Heather Townsend, accountancy commentator and executive coach, explains: ‘They can usually choose a technical specialism – for example, VAT, tax or insolvency – or a sector specialism such as retail, hospitality, technology or oil and gas. Or it could be a specialism in a type of business such as partnerships or quoted public companies.’
There are even specialisms within specialisms.
‘Well into my career, when I already had a good breath of knowledge across many tax areas, I developed a further specialism in tax rules for partnerships and limited liability partnerships,’ says accountancy mentor and tax specialist Mark Lee.
Pros and cons
You could choose a niche that is always in demand, or one that will help you advance your career towards a particular goal. Or it could be something that you’ve always been interested in, or something that suits your personality.
Townsend points out that specialists command higher salaries too.
‘Contrary to popular belief, they also find it easier to switch jobs, even though their options may be more limited,’ she adds. If they target employers who would rather hire somebody with a specialist experience, they will always be chosen over a generalist.
But what if there is a downturn in that particular part of the market?
‘Any firm specialising in hospitality, retail, aviation, travel or tourism will have struggled over the last 12 months because of the pandemic, but in my experience, when firms have to make their fee earners redundant, they’re more likely to let go off the more generalist members of their staff rather than the specialists,’ says Townsend.
How to decide on a niche (and when)
In large firms, people are encouraged to specialise early on in their careers, beginning with tailored graduate training programmes.
Some of the specialist departments have very specific entrance criteria – for example, you may need a good maths degree to join an actuarial scheme or an IT-related degree to work in forensic services.
Otherwise, choosing your specialism can be a matter of figuring out which business area suits your character. Some firms’ graduate websites offer self-selection tests to help you decide. For instance, forensic accounting could be for you if you are naturally inquisitive and enjoy intellectual challenges.
In smaller firms, you typically start your career as a generalist.
‘But it’s still useful to think ahead about a specialisation as this gives you something to aim for,’ says Myron Pinto, audit and accounts trainee at Haines Watts.
Townsend believes that you should pick your niche as soon as you qualify. ‘Your charge-out rate to clients will now increase, which means you will need to gain and give some additional expertise to justify that higher rate. This expertise is easier to gain when you become a specialist.’
Should you choose with your head or your heart?
‘My view is you should start with your heart because, first of all, it should be something which you enjoy doing – if you don’t, you won’t give it your best,’ says Townsend.
Then look at it with your head.
Townsend says: ‘If you want to work with a particular type of client base (let’s say, it’s property businesses), does this client base fit in with your firm’s present and future strategy? If it doesn’t, consider if you really want to pursue that niche. If so, perhaps you should think about moving firms.’
Keep in mind the commerciality of any specialism too.
‘It’s highly commendable to enjoy working with and advising on tax issues for people on low incomes but, by definition, the fees payable for such advice are low and so you can’t expect to earn as much as when you specialise in higher value areas of tax,’ says Lee.
Areas likely to be in demand
Look at what’s going on in the marketplace.
‘Following Brexit, VAT and import and export duties have become really valuable skill-sets to have in the UK,’ Townsend points out.
Lee adds: ‘Expertise in VAT, tax investigations and employment taxes will always be in demand. They are also highly commercial and well-paid specialisms.’
Expertise in accounting technologies and the cloud is, and will be, sought after too.
‘Clients will continue to expect their accountant’s help in getting their finance and other systems on to the cloud and in getting those systems to talk to each other,’ says Townsend. ‘They will also continue to need help with gaining actionable insights from their cloud data and with making their financial processes even more efficient.’
What if you don’t like it?
This can happen especially if you have followed your head at the expense of your heart.
Pinto says: ‘As a trainee or a newly qualified accountant, the likelihood is that you are young so don’t be afraid to take a risk that hasn’t worked out – there’s plenty of time to take a step back and reassess your options.
‘Ultimately, you’ll never really know if you like it or not until you’ve tried it. And it’s very likely you’ll regret it more if you don’t give it a go.’
You can minimise this risk by asking for a trial secondment, but do keep your part of the deal.
‘When I was training I was seconded to the trusts department of my firm for three months,’ Lee recalls. ‘I quickly realised it wasn’t for me, but I stuck it out. The firm wasn’t big enough to allow me to go back to my normal team after all the arrangements had been made.’
If you decide the specialism isn’t right for you further down the line, there’s nothing stopping you from changing it or acquiring another.
‘You don’t have to stay in a niche for the rest of your career,’ says Townsend. ‘In fact, it’s good practice to always be looking ahead to the next few years and planning to either swap to a different department in your firm, or change firms so that you can develop a new specialism.’
This article was first published in Student Accountant in May 2021