Planning your work experience

A proactive approach to planning your practical experience requirement will help you reach your ultimate goal of ACCA membership. Student Accountant looks at how you can plan effectively

When planning for ACCA membership, every student knows that proven work experience is just as important as exam success, and equal to the ethical approach so valued in a professional accountant. But gaining this work experience is not always straightforward. Whereas the exam path is very clear cut, work experience is a much more fluid – and possibly more daunting – process, and one which greatly depends on both employment history and career opportunity. Many students, especially those who study full-time and perhaps have never been employed, expect (or hope) that their first employer will provide all the answers. But is this always the case? And if not, how can students plan ahead to make sure they gain their work experience as effectively as possible?

Catherine Edwards, ACCA head of qualifications, recommends an early, proactive, and strategic approach, based on a thorough understanding of what’s required: ‘If students are to benefit from the hard work required to pass ACCA exams, then they must also drive the achievement of their performance objectives. ACCA membership demands three years’ work experience, which matches ACCA’s performance objectives. This experience does not have to be gained in one three-year stretch, and can come from different jobs – paid or unpaid – at different times, even from before a student first registers with ACCA. However, to count towards membership, any experience must link to a performance objective, and be signed off by a practical experience supervisor (a qualified accountant). This can be done retrospectively, if necessary, but it is obviously much easier if experience is signed off as soon as it is gained, so even if a student is yet to start their ACCA exams, by validating any relevant experience they can start to meet performance objectives as early as possible.’

ACCA students will also have to work in a variety of roles in order to gain the full range of experience required and so, once again, forward thinking can pay dividends. Whereas some students may find that their employer has mapped out a route for their work experience, others may need to move departments (or even jobs) to gain the necessary variety. In addition, choosing one of the four Technical performance objectives also requires students to specialise, to some extent, in a particular field, and so thinking ahead will help with this aspect as well.

Working with an employer

A proactive approach to work experience is especially useful for those students working in organisations where training is less formal (or more rigid), or where training budgets are more constrained, and for those who know they have to move jobs in order to gain the experience they require. ‘If an employer’s training plan is too limited then students could actively suggest different methods of gaining experience, such as secondments or job rotations,’ suggests Edwards. ‘They could also discuss any issues with their practical experience supervisor, who might be able to make changes. Importantly, a proactive approach also gives an employer feedback, and perhaps gives them some new ideas on how to make the most of enthusiastic and ambitious employees.’

Although this is undeniably a good strategy, students can find it difficult to suggest improvements if they have little experience of how an ‘ideal’ employer would act. An in-depth review of an ACCA Platinum Approved Employer’s approach may provide some inspiration.

Khalid Hamid is executive director of the UAE State Audit Institution (SAI), based in Abu Dhabi. The SAI acts as external auditor for the UAE Federal Government and deliberately employs a number of different training methods to ensure ACCA students gain the experience they need. ‘Variety suits all learners,’ comments Hamid. ‘By using different training methods we find that each learner gains – and enjoys – at least some components of the full training programme. And there are also many benefits for the employer from this approach. For example, by challenging students in different ways, managers can identify strengths and weaknesses, helping them place recruits into the organisation. A mixed training methodology also develops other key skills such as leadership, effective communication, presentation and time management.’

SAI helps ACCA students develop both technical and personal skills in areas ranging from Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP) certification to stress management, audit methodology to presentation skills and IT to ‘dealing with difficult clients’. Different training strategies are also used, including shadowing and secondments. ‘When students join SAI they first shadow a senior associate working in a particular field,’ explains Hamid, ‘and we also use secondments, especially to different countries, as a way of broadening experience further. For example, we recently sent 15 trainees to the Malaysian National Audit Academy, and are in the process of setting up a similar scheme with Big Four accountancy firms. We use secondments to give students international exposure, and to help develop cross-cultural understanding and communication skills. This builds confidence which, in turn, results in more positive client relationships.’

A variety of training methods are also used, including group discussions, brainstorming, role play, case studies, presentations and videos. ‘It is extremely important to use as many methods as possible,’ says Hamid. ‘This ensures that all learning styles are addressed, and through exposure to different techniques, many students find they develop unexpected confidence in certain areas, helping them set career goals they may otherwise not have identified. For example, a student may discover they have leadership potential because they tend to emerge as the leader in group discussions, or good communication skills may be shown by the way a student relates to their trainer and to other students. The right training with the right mix of methodologies can certainly shape an individual’s career path.’

Work experience outside paid work

A training strategy such as at the UAE State Audit Institution should give students food for thought when talking through possibilities with their current employer, and also when assessing future career moves. But it’s important to remember that all work experience can be valuable – and potentially career building. For example, London-based ACCA affiliate Abdulrehman Shaukat decided to start his post-exam career by applying to finance firms while also volunteering for charity organisation Save the Children: ‘My long-term ambition was to secure a job in a big firm where I could gain exposure and develop my career. However, to get my “foot in the door” I realised that more was required and so started to focus on soft skills to differentiate myself from the pool of candidates. I believe many candidates fail to realise the importance of this aspect of career development. I decided to volunteer for a charity because I thought it would be a great opportunity to work alongside people determined to help others.’

Shaukat worked as a volunteer for seven months and, even though it was a relatively short time, he still managed to gain important experience: ‘I helped the retail administrator in  fund-raising activities, communicated with different local authorities regarding recycling credits, and helped update the charity’s volunteer records. I also learned that money is not the only way to contribute towards society, and that giving time can be just as important.’

Shaukat is now part of the risk analytics support team at investment management firm BlackRock, where he is completing his work experience for ACCA and CFA membership. So would Shaukat still recommend volunteering? ‘A big yes,’ he says in response. ‘If you can’t immediately find a job, or can’t afford to pay for additional training, then volunteering is ideal – your skills and CV remain competitive, you gain valuable experience and build soft skills, and help the organisation you work for – it’s a “win win” situation. In addition, many charities with retail activities often ask their volunteers to deal with or sell to the general public, and these skills are very useful when selling yourself to a potential employer. Many employers also look favourably on applicants who have such experience as it shows that they are keen to help society as a whole.’

Signing off experience

For work experience to count towards ACCA membership it must earn a practical experience supervisor's, stresses Edwards. ‘Secondments, pro bono work or volunteering are all very valuable as long as a student does not undertake any work prohibited by ACCA regulations, and finds a practical experience supervisor to sign off the work in question. And even if the experience turns out not be directly relevant it won’t be wasted; employers are generally impressed by CVs from individuals who are clearly committed to working and gaining experience where they can.’

The message is, therefore, to plan your work experience just as carefully as your exams. You may be lucky enough to have an employer who takes this all in hand, but if not – or even if you do – don’t forget that there are many different ways to meet performance objectives, and that a more proactive and varied approach may lead to new and even more valuable career experiences, helping you move closer to your goal of ACCA membership.

For more information on the practical experience requirement, visit ACCA’s website at

"My long-term ambition was to secure a job in a big firm where I could gain exposure and develop my career. However, to get my “foot in the door” I realised that more was required and so started to focus on soft skills to differentiate myself from the pool of candidates"