The surge in demand for corporate accounting services in China has led the Big Four firms to recruit more mainland talent, but such is the increase in workload, the need for expatriate experience remains.
Accountancy is experiencing rapid growth in the mainland as a result of soaring demand for auditing and advisory services created by increased activity in corporate restructuring, initial public offerings and mergers and acquisitions.
The trend has given a huge boost to recruitment and employment figures among the four giant accounting firms - PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), KPMG, Deloitte, and Ernst & Young. All are expanding aggressively on the mainland.
PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG announced that they were planning to appoint record numbers of new mainland-based partners, reflecting the market's growing importance and the need to retain talent.
PricewaterhouseCoopers has close to 8,000 staff, with 270 partners in its China practice, including Hong Kong and Macau. The company expects this to grow by 50 per cent in the next few years. Its global network has invested US$200million in China and will continue to invest another US$100million over the next few years.
To help sustain a growing presence on the mainland, it plans to recruit at least 1,400 university graduates each year in China, including Hong Kong and Macau.
The company is keen to give mainland graduates the experience they need to rise through the ranks, but not necessarily at the expense of foreign experience.
'All our partners have different industry experience and expertise,' said Ewan Clarkson, national assurance HR leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers China and Hong Kong.
'We're looking for the appropriate mix,' said Mr Clarkson. 'There is a huge interest to join the field right now. When they join, they get excellent development, exposure to great clients such as multinationals and Chinese enterprises, and can gain work experience in different cities. We manage that talent all the way through to partnership. Over the next few years, we will see a larger proportion of the mainland recruits coming through to partnership, we will continue to provide the experience they need to become a quality professional.'
The mainland has made progress in aligning to international standards, and the main issue now is the need to improve training to develop a better-skilled workforce. Hong Kong will continue to play an important role in this respect.
'For us, the mobility between Hong Kong and China is important,' said Mr Clarkson.
'We recognise the maturity of the Hong Kong market and the developing nature of the China market. Many international companies are listed in Hong Kong now, and having our people there gives them the exposure they need. We are developing leaders in all our locations.'
The process of restructuring, privatisation and public listings under way in China has been driving a huge demand for audit services.
'The sheer volume of work means we are bringing in experience all the time,' said Mr Clarkson. 'We are especially looking for Mandarin speakers who can come here and fill the skill gaps. We can always benefit from different skills and industry experience. I don't think the number of expats will decline. The priority is to strengthen the skill base. We are looking for the right people, in the right place at the right time.'
Of the 55 new partners appointed by PwC this year, 26 are mainland nationals, a figure that should encourage new recruits.
'The priority [when selecting new partners] is talent,' said Mr Clarkson.
'It comes down to who is qualified and ready. We have 1,600 new graduates joining at the end of this month, and for them to see the quality we have at partnership level is very important. From a recruiting perspective, it provides encouragement and inspiration for the new graduates to see the 26 [mainland] nationals admitted to the partnership.'
While more mainlanders are filling auditing positions, consulting remains the domain of expatriates, although that may change.
KPMG, meanwhile, will have 51 new partners for its Hong Kong and China practice. Ten of the new partners are from the mainland, double the number last year. Of the remainder, most are ethnic Chinese. This year alone, KPMG plans to hire 1,700 fresh graduates and 500 experienced accountants on the mainland and in Hong Kong. It estimates that within 10 years, its headcount on the mainland will grow to 20,000.
Ernst & Young is taking on 600 experienced accountants in Hong Kong and the mainland, plus 200 graduates in Hong Kong, and a further 1,000 in the mainland this year.
Deloitte employs about 6,500 people in the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau, with another 2,000 in Taiwan. It expects the total headcount for Greater China to rise to 12,000 by 2010. Some 65 per cent of Deloitte's US$150million investment in China, including Hong Kong, since 2004 has been dedicated to developing local talent.