Career development: workplace skills

To be effective in the workplace you need more than just technical ability – but it can be a surprise to discover just how important, and how varied, essential workplace skills can be. So what should students know and how can they prepare?

While ACCA study is an excellent route to becoming a highly competent accountant, it is still difficult to gain a real understanding of the workplace without practical knowledge – which is why ACCA membership requires students to complete three-years’ relevant work experience. This requirement reflects the need to develop the wider range of skills required by employers, as without these skills students can find themselves at a disadvantage when looking for a job – and building a career – especially those hoping to enter employment straight from full-time study.

‘Being exam qualified with no work experience is a difficult situation, as you have all the theory but employers want to see practical application of knowledge,’ says Tom Chadwick, Finance Division Manager at London-based recruitment consultant Handle Recruitment. This concern is echoed by ACCA tuition providers, who recognise the problems faced by students with limited work experience, especially in those regions where the majority study full time: ‘Almost 95% of our students have never worked,’ says Sajid Hussain, principal of ACCA Platinum Approved Learning Partner SKANS School of Accountancy, which operates across Pakistan. ‘Full-time study is the norm in Pakistan, and although it allows students to absorb knowledge fully and focus purely on academic progress, when it comes to employment, part-time students with experience are definitely preferred by employers.’

In the UK, the picture is the same, although the balance is different says Paul Moore, partner at ACCA Platinum Approved Learning Partner First Intuition, which operates schools in London, Cambridge and Reading, and where around 20% of students are full time. ‘Most employers are looking for more than just a good academic track record, and so we recommend that all students gain some sort of work experience, even if not in a finance position,’ he comments. ‘We also explain how workplace skills can be useful  in their ACCA studies, as examiners look for ‘good business sense’.’

Reality check

It’s clear that some students need a ‘reality check’ when preparing for the workplace says Chadwick: ‘You may be have finished your exams but you are not going to walk into a highly paid position if you have little or no experience, so a willingness to start at the bottom and work up is key.’

Moore agrees, based on very specific observations: ‘As our students near their final exam, I can start to gauge who will ‘go places’ in their career. Students who are habitually late, spend time texting while in class, and generally try to do as little as  possible will not go far, and this is a real shame. Most of our students are hugely employable, and I consider doing something to the best of your ability a real sign of maturity – I certainly think life is more interesting if you give it your best shot.’

There are clearly many good reasons why some students opt for full‑time study, as SKANS student Syeda Zainab Naqvi explains: ‘I chose to study full time because the ACCA Qualification is my life’s mission, and so I believe I have to make it my passion –  I might not have been so dedicated had I studied part-time, or had the experience and maturity to balance other commitments with my studies.’ Even so, Naqvi accepts that work experience is of ‘significant importance’ when applying for a job, and considers team working to be an important skill, along with communication, hands on experience of basic IT skills, and an understanding of workplace etiquette. So how can students – both full and part-time – prepare to enter employment?

Foundations in Professionalism

A good first step is the Foundations in Professionalism (FiP) module which is designed to help ACCA students gain essential workplace skills as early as possible in their accountancy careers. FiP forms part of the Foundation level qualifications, but the module will be available to students at all exam stages and covers law and regulation, professional ethics, personal effectiveness, and personal values.

Gareth Owen, ACCA qualifications development manager, gives more details: ‘FiP recognises that a professional and ethical approach is important to all those in accountancy – from new entrants to fully qualified members. Employers recognise that some prospective employees (university graduates, for example) may not have the same amount of relevant workplace experience as others, but by introducing FiP, all ACCA students will at least have been taught essential workplace skills using a programme based on national occupational standards for the financial sector, approved by employers for employment.

‘In addition, ACCA encourages all students who can gain some work experience to do so, including temporary or voluntary work as well as paid employment. All these options give students opportunities to undertake tasks that demonstrate their competences and, therefore, make them more attractive to prospective employers.’

It’s clear, therefore, that all ACCA students – especially those with little or no work experience – need to build up their workplace skills in any way they can, and to recognise that these skills can be many and varied. As well as a practical understanding of IT and communication tools, excellent interpersonal skills are also highly valued – the ability to work with people from all different levels, for example, to express ideas and concerns appropriately, to take criticism, or to take or give instructions.

Knowing how to work independently and as part of a team is also important, and how to handle the frustrations that are an inevitable part of any workplace. And if that’s not enough, the realities of fixed hours, limited holidays, and rules and regulations regarding behaviour and dress can come as a shock to the less experienced, so any workplace exposure can only be positive, not only improving a CV but making students more productive employees right from day one.

Building workplace skills strategically

The FiP module is certainly an excellent place to start, and students can then build on this experience in other ways; Chadwick of Handle Recruitment suggests volunteering or temping, ‘although this should be approached strategically,’ he warns, ‘by looking for assignments that will develop weaker skill sets. Too many short-term assignments can make a CV look fragmented, but the option of a ‘try before you buy’ assignment does have the potential of turning a temporary position into a permanent post if you can prove yourself indispensable.’

As a tuition provider, SKANS, also takes a very proactive approach to what can be a serious problem: ‘Many students definitely need to improve key workplace skills as they move towards their final exams, especially personal presentation and communication skills to enable them to sell themselves to prospective employers,’ comments Sajid Hussain. ‘In today’s competitive world, these skills are just as important as knowledge, and open up promotional opportunities in the workplace.’ In practical terms, SKANS arranges regular workshops to help students develop their workplace skills and to enhance their marketability and employability. ‘We also offer work opportunities in our schools, as teaching assistants or trainee teachers, posts which involve training designed to improve professional skills,’ adds Hussain.

First Intuition takes a similarly direct approach, explains Paul Moore: ‘If any of our students have job interviews coming up – or they are going for a promotion within their firm – then we encourage them to sit down with us in order to gain some tips and advice.’ Handle Recruitment also offers practical help: ‘A reputable recruitment consultancy will maximise the impact of any work experience on a CV,’ says Chadwick: ‘However, if this is clearly an issue, students part way through their studies could consider putting their exams on hold – or taking fewer exams at each sitting – so that their work experience can catch up,’ he suggests, adding: ‘When looking for your first job, use all the networking tools available, apply for a graduate intake scheme to add a ‘recognised brand’ to your CV, or consider working for an SME which might be more flexible in its work experience requirements. However, if you do decide to gain experience through a full-time post, make sure you manage expectations, as you don’t want potential employers to think that you’ll look for another job as soon as you become an ACCA member.’

FiP clearly reflects a growing need by employers for staff who understand what is meant by professionalism and an ethical approach, and who are prepared for the realities of the workplace. Having invested significant time and effort in gaining the technical skills required for an ACCA Qualification, student accountants need to make sure they also gain these all important workplace skills if they are to fully capitalise on their studies.