Misconceptions on accountancy careers create barriers for new generation

17 August 2023 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read
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New research shows that many young people have misconceptions about careers in accountancy which may be creating unnecessary barriers and preventing them from seeing it as an attainable option. The study finds that students from lower-income backgrounds are more likely to see the industry as unattainable, while being less likely to receive careers advice to dispel that believe.

Since 2008, career advice services for school children across England and Wales has routinely been singled out for public spending cuts. Connexions – which was previously a UK governmental information, advice, guidance and support service for young people aged 13 to 19 – had its funding reduced by more than £100 million a year between 2008 and 2011. A year later, Connexions ceased to be a coherent national service, following changes to the delivery of careers in England and the establishment of the National Careers Service by the Coalition government. It was replaced by the National Careers Service, which can only be accessed online or by telephone - with face-to-face service restricted to those who are 19 or over.

More than a decade later, the changes wrought across the UK’s education system is being acutely felt by the accounting profession. According to a new survey performed by Censuswide, on behalf of Grant Thornton, a 65% majority of young people have never received careers advice about accountancy – with a distinct class divide in those figures likely to set back social mobility efforts in the sector significantly.

Misconceptions on accountancy careers create barriers for new generation

Grant Thornton’s analysis of 2,000 nationally representative respondents aged between 16 and 25 found that 52% of students in private schools already knew an accountant, while just 43% of those attending state schools did. Meanwhile, those attending private schools were 20% more likely to have received careers advice about accountancy – leaving comprehensive school attendees more susceptible to misinformation which would lead them to overlook potential careers in the accounting sector.

Grant Thornton People and Culture Director Richard Waite warned, “There are now so many different routes available for young people considering joining the accountancy profession, whether that is starting on an apprenticeship straight from school, undertaking an internship or placement, or following the traditional graduate route. But it’s clear that there remain significant, and detrimental, misconceptions about access to and working in the accountancy profession.”

The most prevalent of these misconceptions was that prospective accountants needed to have high grades at school – held by 62% of respondents – followed by the belief of 57% that they were required to attend university to become an accountant. The same number also assumed training to become an accountant would be prohibitively expensive.

Attainability gap

These assumptions are feeding back into perceptions of attainability among students from lower-income backgrounds – who are already under-represented in the accounting sector. Private school attendees were 25% more likely to believe that a career in accountancy was attainable than students from comprehensive schools.

The perceived cost and difficulty of joining the profession is also having a disproportionate impact on women. Young people remain aware that there is a pay-gap in most lines of professional life, and in line with this, following the supposedly expensive training the industry requires, women were 13% less likely to believe that a career in accountancy was attainable than men. Meanwhile, perceptions of the sector’s culture also led non-binary people to feel less likely than men or women to feel a career in accountancy was possible.

Overall, half of respondents believe that accountancy is an attainable career for them, while one in four (24%) disagreed. Of those who disagreed, one third attributed it to not knowing enough about the profession to consider it for a career.

Grant Thornton’s researchers asserted that these findings showed it was “vital that employers” take action, to avoid missing out on attracting a new generation of diverse talent to the sector – even as firms struggle to fill roles amid a tight labour market. Recently, the firm launched its own myth busting campaign ahead of its 2023 trainee recruitment window, aiming to challenge some of the commonly held myths about the sector.

Grant Thornton UK Head of Inclusion, Diversity and ESG Jenn Barnett added, “The school you attend, your background or gender should not dictate your access to information or the career path you follow yet our research shows that these factors contribute to the level of exposure to and understanding that a young person may have of the profession. Without a concerted effort to tackle these lingering misconceptions, we risk, inadvertently, missing out on a huge diverse pool of untapped talent.”