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The long-term challenges of attracting talent to the profession, and in particular small- and medium-sized practices (SMPs), have for some time been a topic of focus. While some of the biggest firms in many jurisdictions may have had record intakes in recent years, SMPs have seemingly struggled more in the battle for talent.

There is a strong case to be made for SMPs being the employer of choice for young entrants to the profession. The case rests, in part, on the significance small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have on local economies and the pivotal role SMPs play in supporting them. Also often overlooked are some of the positive differences in experience SMPs can offer compared to larger firms.  

Serving local economies

Local economies are critical to national success in all countries—and micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the force that drives local economies. The United Nations (UN) notes that they account for over 90% of the business population, 60–70% of employment, and 50% of GDP worldwide.

Research shows that irrespective of jurisdiction, accountants, and especially those in small- and medium-sized practices (SMPs), continue to be the preferred advisors to SMEs. Professional business advice is associated with better performance by SMEs as measured by improved rates of survival and growth, improved decision-making procedures, and superior financial performance.

SMPs and the professional accountants (PAs) who work for them are critical to the survival and success of small businesses, and as a result, to local economies as a whole.

Making a meaningful difference to clients and personal development  

Although working in a large firm can have many benefits, there are some strong advantages of thinking smaller. Finding the right firm, with a supportive culture and close team dynamic, can help those new to the profession feel they are really playing their part in contributing to something bigger. Often, new joiners feel important from day one, as it is much harder to be “just a number” in an SMP. The direct impact of their work can be more visible as can their sense of control over their careers. Familiarity with and recognition by decision makers can give the feeling of having a real voice in the future direction of the organization.

Working with large firms and their clients can have advantages, but the world of supporting SMEs can be even more rewarding. On large assignments, roles can often be fragmented and limited to certain tasks; the majority of an individual’s time in a larger firm may even be spent working on a single client. The experience offered by SMPs can be very different. There would generally be an expectation of a varied SME client base. Often, multiple services are provided to the same client, with better opportunities to get involved in broader provision. There is also a greater likelihood of having earlier opportunities to engage with and be accountable to senior management at a variety of clients. This level of exposure can help foster stronger relationships with clients really and give individuals a sense of how they are working with management to help substantively improve businesses.  

Maximizing opportunities for personal and professional growth

Working in a SMP can give unparalleled exposure to a wide variety of engagements and service lines. It is an exciting time to be joining SMPs with core service offerings such as audit, assurance, tax, and financial reporting now being supplemented with business advisory services in areas such as corporate advisory, management accounting, restructuring, data analysis, and many more new and emerging areas.  

Working in an organization where senior leadership are familiar with your work can have many career advantages. In an SMP doing things well, there can be ready access to informal and formal mentoring, career coaching, and transparent progression conversations. Staff are more likely to be able to take the lead on new initiatives—for example, technology initiatives—than within a larger firm where these will often be controlled by specialist central teams.

Personal life can matter more in a close-knit SMP environment, where it is more likely work-life balance will be respected. In addition, many SMPs, like some larger firms, offer flexible working. While headline reward at larger firms can often be higher than at SMPs, the full compensation package may tell a different story. Expected hours and the broader package of benefits should be looked at in conjunction.

Shouting out the benefits

It is clear there is much that SMPs can offer new entrants, but common sense is not yet common knowledge. We all have a part to play in getting the message out. Prospective talent is increasingly looking at online reviews and engaging in social media before making career decisions. It is important for all associated with SMPs to encourage others to leave honest reviews and provide constructive feedback where appropriate so SMPs can become even greater places to nurture talent. Be proud to shout about the strong purpose-led ethos many SMPs have; small voices should no longer be drowned out. It should be clear to all: you can make a big difference by joining a small(er) firm!

We have developed a draft flyer that can be tailored by your firm or your Professional Accountancy Organization (PAO) as well as draft social media messaging. Please feel free to use the wording from these resources in your efforts.

Flyer: The Benefits of a Career in Public Practice and with a Small Firm

Additional Promotional Material for Social Media

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Harpal Singh
Harpal Singh

Principal

Harpal Singh is a Principal within Thought Leadership at IFAC. Before IFAC, Harpal spent 10 years working for Grant Thornton UK LLP (GTUK). At GTUK, Harpal was first part of the Public Sector and Commercial Assurance practices, before joining the Financial Reporting technical team. Harpal helped develop the firm’s Financial Reporting advisory offering outside of London and then joined the Business Consulting team specializing in finance consulting and talent solutions. Prior to joining GT, Harpal was a Public Sector auditor for the Audit Commission in the UK.