Accountants have taken the job market here by storm.

Qualified accountants - especially those with one to three years of experience - are in demand by the Big Four, in the financial services sector and across industry.

And that upsurge is not limited to London, but reflected across the U.K. Candidates, particularly those experienced in corporate law and compliance work, can command the pick of offers and the best salary packages.

"We have seen the demand for qualified accountants rise by 300 percent in the period since summer 2003," said John Dyson, a manager in the Birmingham office of global recruiter Robert Half.

Across the board, recruitment managers say that the jobs boom will last another year at least. Karen Lewis, operations director at Reed Finance, said, "There's new confidence in the market. I anticipate that we could have a healthy four years ahead."

The primary reasons for the sudden and rapid rise are that finance departments did not recruit to anticipate their needs two years ago, and major listed companies now have a vast volume of compliance work. The Big Four accountancy practices have been swamped with client requests for help with the burden of new regulatory assignments. Uppermost are the requirements of international accounting standards, the banks' Basel II edicts, comprehensive new money laundering rules and, for any British businesses with ties to U.S. companies, the Sarbanes-Oxley regulations.

Companies and accountancy firms now need qualified people on board to cope with these hugely intensified pressures. In consequence, the Big Four are recruiting thousands of accountants at all levels.

PricewaterhouseCoopers said that it is taking on about 100 new accountants a month - up from 30 to 40 as recently as April. Ernst & Young said that it is hiring twice as many people as it was three years ago.

Stevan Rolls, E&Y's director of resourcing, said: "It was a short-sighted measure to cut our graduate recruitment. We cut back to about 250 when the downturn was at its worst, but we knew we would have a major headache later."

For the best candidates, there can be four or five offers at any one time. They can pick and choose whether to work in an accountancy firm or go into industry. Depending on which region the candidates are based in, they can generally pick from the following sectors: financial services, information technology, media, retailing, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.

In the accountancy sector, the Big Four have adopted increasingly radical recruitment techniques. PwC's head of recruitment in the U.K., Charles Macleod, said that he recently had taken on 550 trained accountants in a single day.

Among his recruiting weapons is a mobile poster truck that is parked close to the principal offices of the firm's rivals. The truck spells out the type of vacancies that are available at PwC, and encourages staffers at other firms to give the U.K. market leader a call.

Other firms have been using sandwich wraps to advertise opportunities. They target sandwich shops that are used by employees at a competitor firm and then buy space on the wrapper.

Said Macleod, "In the experienced-hire market, we have done things that have not been done before. We advertised on the Tube [London's subway]. We sent mobile posters around and so did the other firms."

Dating ... and poaching

Another way of locating new employees is speed recruiting. This is similar to speed dating and operates in similar venues. But candidates are seeking good employers rather than an attractive date.

Deloitte likes speed recruiting - and the firm has a very aggressive approach to poaching staff from other practices. 'Where we have gaps or growth opportunities which we cannot resource from organic growth of our own people, we will know respected teams in other organizations who we will target," admitted David Sproul, Deloitte's talents partner.

It is the mid-tier - known as Group A firms in the U.K. - that has suffered at the hands of the staffing demands of the Big Four. Whole teams from Group A firms have literally been harvested in single-strike initiatives.

Some Big Four recruitment partners secure the e-mail addresses of groups of people. Then they make financial offers to the members of these teams that are way beyond the paying power of the mid-tier firms. More important, the Big Four know that the spouses of the targets will have an awful lot to say if the candidate does not accept a significantly larger deal.

Steve Edmonds, head of entrepreneurial services at Grant Thornton, pointed out: "We are aware of an increased intensity of the Big Four headhunting our people more so than in the past couple of years. There is a relentless intensity to the targeting at the moment."

"We are aware of far more headhunters' approaches to our people," he added. "There have been calls and e-mails through to our staff - particularly our specialist people - from Big Four headhunters."

Mid-tier firms, meanwhile, are doing everything they can to hold on to their staff.

"We have experienced a Big Four firm seeking to take people from us, but fortunately the employment position that we now offer is such that they don't seem to be leaving in their droves," said Jeremy Newman, managing partner at BDO Stoy Hayward.

Anita Mattison, director of HR at Baker Tilly, revealed that her firm has lost staff to the Big Four, but "we have identified our best [people], and have been able to retain them."

Overall, the mid-tier firms are undertaking a recruitment battle of their own, but feel that they are not in the same mass market as the Big Four. "They are looking for vast numbers, while we are looking for individuals or teams," Grant Thornton's Edmonds said.

"We are looking on a more selective basis at specialist areas," he adds. "Corporate finance is very strong and we are getting the right people in for audit. But tax is a bit tricky at the moment - we are recruiting heavily there, but finding it hard to get good quality candidates. It seems clear that employers are looking after their quality employees well, and it's making them reluctant to move."

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access