Since China's accession to the World Trade Organisation, the country's economic development has entered a new phase. The various measures introduced to liberalise markets have opened up tremendous opportunities for both foreign investors and local enterprises and further spurred the demand for professional accounting and business advisory services.
Desmond Yuen, partner and head of China services for international accountancy firm Grant Thornton, believes that the mainland's robust growth and the resulting need for all kinds of financial services will continue for at least the next two years. He says that auditing is the area of greatest demand because mainland enterprises are taking steps to revise their accounting and auditing practices in order to conform to international standards. This is often as a prelude to applying for a public listing in Hong Kong or overseas.
However, other areas such as taxation, corporate restructuring, raising finance and investment consulting are also increasingly important. Mr Yuen points out that these services are actually interrelated and can give rise to one another.
With demand soaring for the last two years, it has been difficult to find enough qualified professionals in Hong Kong to fill all the available vacancies. Accountants with three to five years' experience are most sought after and salaries for such people have increased by 20 to 40 per cent. One likely job requirement is that they would have to spend up to half their working time on the mainland.
Fresh graduates are also needed and Grant Thornton recruits 15 to 25 audit assistants every year, the majority of them from local universities. They receive initial training for three to four weeks, which is followed by on-the-job coaching and mentoring. Even in junior positions, they should expect frequent travel to the mainland and might be there for 30 per cent of the time.
The firm has targeted more graduates this year and starting salaries have been increased 5 per cent compared to 2004. Mr Yuen believes that, in the long run, it will be a challenge to find the required number of recruits in Hong Kong and that more candidates will be hired in China.
"Mainland graduates have sound technical skills since many of them have specialised training in auditing or corporate finance while at university," he says. "Besides, some of them are better at thinking independently and have stronger presentation skills than their Hong Kong counterparts."
To enable Hong Kong trainees to compete effectively, Grant Thornton has introduced courses in business English and Putonghua for its junior accountants. They are also encouraged to take advantage of the easier access to international news sources and to monitor global business trends. Mr Yuen says that the standard of local universities is high, but believes that individuals must also dedicate themselves to continuous learning after graduation.
Typically, accountants are seen as conservative, analytical and having a keen eye for detail. Consequently, their role is often regarded as a back-office function, but Mr Yuen points out that this is a wrong impression. "In fact, we require accountants who are outgoing, smart and flexible, and have business acumen and the ability to act quickly," he explains.
The firm looks for these attributes and the right attitude during the interview process, knowing that it is possible to train recruits in the necessary professional knowledge and technical skills. "We see if they have an open character and whether they are communicative and practical," Mr Yuen adds.
As a general reminder to aspiring accountants, he also notes that commitment is crucial. "In the past, accountants never considered a move until they had been with a firm for six to eight years," he says. "The younger generation should be prepared to work hard and realise that the profession requires long hours and regular travel to the mainland. It is not necessarily to major cities but may be to less developed areas with lower living standards."
To succeed as an accountant, commercial knowledge and good business sense are important. Also essential are natural curiosity and a good understanding of various social and political issues. For example, in addition to basic accounting and auditing services, a professional may have to provide clients with advice that requires a thorough understanding of mainland policies and regulations.
With Grant Thornton, accountants have a "simple and straightforward" career path. Mr Yuen says it usually takes two years for a new joiner to become a senior audit assistant and around six years in total to advance to management level. He adds that it is an advantage to work in a medium-sized accounting firm where good performance is more easily recognised, rather than in a Big Four firm which may use the practice of "batch promotion".
He also emphasises that Grant Thornton is able to provide the opportunity for all-round training and broader exposure to all kinds of business operations, since the firm has such a diverse client base. This leads, though, to a particular problem, since other firms know where to look when they need experienced, well-trained accountants.
Ready to travel
- The mainland's strong economy has created an unprecedented
demand for trained accountants
- Graduates usually start in auditing and receive in-depth
training and on-the-job experience
- Commitment is important and young accountants should be
prepared for hard work and long hours
- The work is likely to require frequent travel to the mainland