Accounting offers those in the profession a highly structured career path. Practitioners are shown where to go and be at different times and stages of their careers. On average, it takes an accountant three to four years to become a qualified chartered professional accountant (CPA). In a CPA firm, someone who performs and contributes can be promoted in six years to the rank of manager, leading others to manage assignments and clients. It takes nine years to become a senior manager, in charge of large client portfolios and teams, and 12 to 15 years to achieve partnership status with an international firm. 'The profession also offers lots of challenges to those who are dedicated,' says Vivian Sun Kwai-yu, a past president of CPA Australia and now a learning and education director at PricewaterhouseCoopers. 'I still very much enjoy my job and profession after all these years. It is a lifelong learning process. The profession encourages me to gain new knowledge and expertise all the time. 'There is no short cut,' she adds. 'We move on and leave behind what we have learnt, and share the knowledge and expertise with others.' Ms Sun says it is an advantage to possess some basic knowledge of accounting before entering the profession. Candidates who do not have an accounting degree could follow any of the conversion courses in accounting offered by local and overseas academic institutes. In accounting, there are usually two career paths you can follow: join a CPA firm or sign up with a business/government organisation. CPA firms, which offer wide exposure through a diversified client base, are usually the preferred choice among those entering the profession. On the other hand, business organisations give accountants industry expertise. Applicants can enter as an assistant accountant and end up as a financial controller. Most practitioners, whether they start in CPA firms or not, end their accounting career in a business organisation, according to Ms Sun. A number of accountants start their career at the government's Inland Revenue Department. Some will later join a CPA firm as a tax accountant. At present, the industry as a whole is not hiring as many people as in previous years. The profession places a heavy emphasis on experience and judgment. Accountants should have good analytical and problem-solving skills. They are also expected to continuously polish and update their skills. 'They have to understand the entire business environment. This is especially important in a CPA firm, because we serve clients from all sectors.' All-round soft skills are also expected in accountants who must interact closely with clients and their own teams. 'PricewaterhouseCoopers conducts 200 training and development programmes a year for its 6,000 staff in Hong Kong and China,' Ms Sun says. 'We provide training and learning opportunities to staff at graduate level, middle level and even up to director or partner level. Topics range from technical updates on new listing rules of the Securities and Futures Commission, new accounting interpretations, directives from the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, to the recent topics of risk management and corporate governance.' At present, the industry is looking for specialists, rather than generalists, she says. 'We are seeking depth of knowledge, rather than breadth,' she says. 'In the first few years of practice, we usually rotate our staff to give them a wide exposure. Afterwards, we expect them to be specialised or focused in an industry. This could be in consumer industrial products, retailing, IT, technology and entertainment, infrastructure and shipping, or financial services. 'This coincides with the firm's recruiting strategy for senior-level staff. We hire people from various industries for our practice groups, such as corporate finance bankers, hoteliers, or even policemen (for our fraud division). Their industry knowledge is of the utmost value to us,' Ms Sun says.