The accounting career path is broken

Post by
Dan Hully
The accounting career path is broken

Job satisfaction in the accountancy profession is in a slump. At Quantico, we think we know why. We also think we’ve got a solution. Let’s find out more.  


It may have worked for decades, but the traditional career path for accountants is broken.


It has stopped working for the accountants, with half of all accountants saying they are unhappy at work. It has also stopped working for the companies they serve, outside of the biggest accountancy firms and their corporate clients.


Accountants are frustrated, stuck in careers that haven’t brought the fulfilment they expected. Smaller companies, especially startups, are not getting the financial expertise they desperately need to succeed. What can be done?


In this article, we’re going to examine why accountants are finding their career path a disappointment ... and what we think is the solution. Let’s dive in.


Accountants as a group are not happy


I had the idea for this article a few weeks ago when I was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony for newly-qualified accountants.


Everyone was congratulating the new accountants. Rightly so; qualifying as an accountant is the culmination of a great deal of hard work and sacrifice. However, the older generation presenting the certificates isn’t aware that the accountancy profession doesn’t work for this generation the way it did for the last one.


After inflation, accountants are paid significantly less now than they were ten years ago. Accountancy does not command the same prestige in society that it used to. Perhaps most importantly, being an accountant has stopped being fulfilling. One in two people that I saw celebrating their newly-qualified status will be unhappy in their roles before too long. Almost the same proportion will be looking for something different.


A recent survey by CV-Library laid it out in stark terms:

  • 50% of accountancy professionals are unhappy in their current role
  • Of those who said they were unhappy, 42% said it was because of a lack of opportunities for development
  • While 96% of unhappy accountants were looking for a new job

Unhappiness in your role can manifest itself in fatigue, boredom, anger and sadness. It can even lead to depression.


Why is accountancy not working?


I believe the reason that such a large proportion of accountants are unhappy in their jobs is that the industry has failed to adapt to what today’s generation wants from a profession.


Today’s generation of new starters, whether they are millennials or Generation Z, want something else. They do not want a safe job for life; they want something with meaning and purpose. They want to be able to work flexibly. They also prize personal development over almost anything else.


The traditional accounting career path does not provide that. Its rigid structure, that used to be so appealing, is now obsolete. What used to be a benefit is now a burden.


Practice vs industry


In my view, the cause of this dissatisfaction in the accounting profession is something that happens as soon as you qualify as an accountant; it’s the moment when you have to choose between going into practice or industry.


It’s a problem because you’re making a choice, virtually on day one, that will affect the rest of your career. Your choice will lead to you having to take on completely different skill sets and once you’ve started, it’s difficult to change your path.


There are pros and cons to both options and accountants can find advice from people they know, but there is very little informed debate over what path suits each accountant as an individual. The career paths of industry and practice suit different personalities. For example, in practice, you will work in a big team with lots of social interaction. In industry, you could be the only accountant in the business. You have to be a certain type of person to thrive in that situation.


What typically happens is the most ambitious graduates start their career at one of the big accounting firms, preferably one of the Big Four, because they think it’s ‘the right thing to do’. If it doesn’t suit their personality, their skill set and the way they want to work, it may end up being the wrong choice.


Big firm = narrow exposure


The brightest and most ambitious new accountants that take the path of practice have the prestige, but they often find out that their talents are not used in the right way.


For the most part, accountants in practice work on large corporates. They receive few opportunities to see the way a business works as a whole. Rather, they become specialists in one narrow field of accounting, such as audit, tax or M&A.


They also only get to find out what it’s like working on big businesses, receiving little exposure to startups or fast-growing scale ups. This isn’t good for them, or our economy.


Talented accountants often find this lack of variety frustrating.  Their skills aren’t developed as they want them to be, and making rich companies richer doesn’t provide the fulfilment they’re looking for.


Financial Controller vs CFO


For those newly-qualified accountants who pick the industry path, their journey comes with some particular obstacles of its own. The standard path for an accountant who chooses industry is to start as an assistant, then work through various levels of financial accountant, until they reach the level of Financial Controller.


A Financial Controller will oversee the everyday operations of a company’s finance department. To be a success in the role of Financial Controller, you need to be extremely detail-oriented, with expertise in management.


However, as a Financial Controller, you will also be working to reach the level above, Chief Financial Officer (CFO). A company’s CFO is responsible for supporting the CEO and reporting to the board. It is an extremely strategic role, where you help set the vision for the company as much as you help the company achieve it.


You’ll see that the roles of Financial Controller and CFO require totally different skill sets, polar opposites from each other. It’s no surprise that accountants find it challenging when they progress to CFO, as they are completely pivoting. Unfortunately, it’s the path they chose and there is not much they can do about it.


Further reasons for accountants’ frustration


The traditional accountancy career path is inherently flawed. Yet, it’s not the only reason that today’s generation of accountants are miserable in their roles. What were previously thought of as incentives to becoming an accountant, have diminished until they are not incentives at all.


In large accountancy firms, the traditional pay structure means that individuals earn a comparatively depressed salary until they reach Partner level. Then, they become some of the best-paid people in society. However, this process can take many years. The average time it takes for an accountant to become a Partner is around fifteen years. There is no ownership in a firm below partnership.


Fifteen years is a long time to put up with comparatively low pay, hard work and long hours. Today’s generation, who on the whole prioritise work-life balance over money, may be reluctant to make that commitment.


Companies do not get the benefit


While much of today’s generation of accountants are unhappy in their work, not making the best of their talents and finding themselves under-prepared for progression, the companies they work with are suffering too.


Whether they are in practice or industry, accountants who are unhappy in their roles do not do their best work. If they are bored, angry or fatigued, their work will not be of a high standard.


Startups are at even more of a disadvantage, at a time when they need financial expertise the most. When startups try to hire accountants, they can only choose between:

  • Less ambitious candidates who have only worked in small firms or small companies
  • Ambitious and talented candidates who found success in large corporates, but have no startup experience and no idea how small businesses operate

When you start a startup, having a handle on your finances is essential. It’s not ideal that startups cannot call upon the best in the business with a wide range of knowledge.

If only there were a better way.


The Quantico solution


At Quantico, we think we have found the answer. We’re a new type of firm, one that gives today’s generation of accountants everything they want when it comes to variety and development in their role, while providing our client base of startups with the service they deserve.


We've created a new type of role, the Quantico Finance Business Partner, that strikes a middle ground between practice and industry, between Financial Controller and CFO.  Our Finance Business Partners are the CFOs of the future:

  • Our teams work with between 1 and 5 clients
  • You spend between 1 and 4 days onsite with clients each week, the rest with our team
  • You receive the in-depth exposure to clients that you don’t get in practice. However, you still get all the benefits of being in a team
  • You don’t have to work alone, as you usually would at a startup. You’re supported by a group of knowledgeable, experienced peers


When it comes to a career path, we give our accountants the opportunity to progress quickly. You’re on the fast track:

  • No more jumping around between jobs. At Quantico, you can experience multiple companies in one role
  • You get exposure to 3-4 times as many problems, gaining the skills to progress more quickly


It’s a career path that finds a way between Financial Controller and CFO:

  • You are rewarded by using technology to solve detail-oriented problems
  • You’ll be producing CFO-level insights from an early stage, without having to go through Financial Controller level
  • You don't have to worry about transactional work and invoice processing


We see the frustration of accountants having to wait 15 years before they feel they are receiving the rewards of their hard work. So, we reward our team differently.

  • Using pay bands for each level of experience, we pay above-average salaries from the start – we find it helps us get above-average accountants!
  • We pay yearly bonuses based on performance, as well as sharing profits throughout the team
  • After one year, you will be eligible to join our share options scheme
  • Pension contributions for long-term reward


Finally, when you work at Quantico, you can be confident that you are making a difference to the businesses you work on:

  • Startups don’t have to hire one person and expect them to do everything
  • Instead they can turn to a team of experts, including you!

So there you have it; a great career path, a job with rewards, as well as meaning and purpose. It can only be Quantico.


If you’re a talented accountant looking for an exciting new challenge, it’s time to talk to Quantico. To find out more about becoming a Quantico Financial Business partner, visit our site today.