Recruitment drive goes on
The skills gap in the mainland's accounting profession is slowly narrowing, as efforts to build the domestic talent pool have begun to yield dividends.
'The growing number of people returning from an overseas education, and the mainland's own efforts in building domestic talent, have led to the mainland becoming less dependent on foreign talent,' says Keith Pogson, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA), and managing partner of Asia-Pacific financial services at Ernst & Young.
More talent, however, is still needed. The mainland has 250,000 qualified accountants, says Ada Leung, head of ACCA China. She attributes the talent drought to the surge of investment that has flowed into China since its entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001.
'This, coupled with the expansion of domestic businesses and the economic boom, has generated a very real need for qualified accountants with international experience and exposure,' she says.
The bulk of demand comes from large multinationals operating on the mainland and fast-expanding domestic enterprises needing to put in place improved and more robust financial processes as they explore listing opportunities overseas.
'The real crux point is at the middle to senior management level. Companies are looking for decision makers who can stand up and be accountable to the board,' Pogson says.
Expertise in areas of corporate governance, internal control and risk management is highly sought, as is an understanding of international financial markets, global reporting and tax. Soft attributes such as communication, interpersonal skills and networking ability are equally important. Accountants are also expected to uphold a high standard of ethics and integrity. 'In China, employers want people with local knowledge who understand the way things are done and can communicate well with local clients and partners,' Leung says.
Though the big four accounting firms have been on the mainland for almost two decades, Pogson notes that they only ramped up operations in 2000, as domestic businesses grew and foreign investment came pouring in.
'The pipeline of accountants with more than 10 years' experience and with an international background is just not that large because the industry is still new,' he says. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that, unlike developed Western economies, such as the United States and Britain, China's ratio of accountants to the general population is traditionally low, due to its vast population, according to Douglas Lau, Hong Kong director for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). While some organisations are sourcing from markets such as Singapore, Malaysia and particularly Hong Kong, many more are collaborating with organisations such as ACCA, HKICPA and ICAEW to train local accountants. Up to 30,000 mainland graduates enter accounting each year.
Firms are also focusing on staff retention. 'It is critical for employers to understand the needs of employees so that they can retain staff in the long run. For example, we see the importance of people engagement at Ernst & Young, which addresses all aspects of our people's needs and expectations, including learning and development, a better work-life balance and an emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness,' says Bernard Poon, divisional president of CPA Australia for Greater China and also transaction advisory services leader for Hong Kong and Macau at Ernst & Young.