One benefit of being a qualified accountant is that whichever way the economy turns it is a profession that is always in demand. Whether an enterprise is reaping record profits and eyeing acquisitions or facing fearsome losses and fending off creditors, someone still has to tally the numbers and ensure the books are in order. Melissa Wu, KPMG's partner in charge of human resources, said that even in an economic downturn there was steady demand for the expertise of accountancy firms. However, she said that the overall balance of work had changed noticeably. Initial public offerings (IPOs) and transaction-based work had diminished in the past two years, but the need for restructuring services, risk control and tax advisory services had seen a corresponding increase. 'There is a surge in demand for our services [with regard] to how to comply with the rules,' Ms Wu said. She said that transfer pricing was another growth area. In particular, it was presenting new opportunities for work on the mainland where new regulations, which had to be applied correctly, were being introduced this year. The key point, though, is that trained accountants should be capable of coping with these changes. 'The people who [previously] spent a lot of time on IPOs or transactions are all professional accountants,' Ms Wu said. 'With that background it is easy to redeploy them.' The Big Four firms, and most others, have become adept at this form of 'talent management', reacting quickly to changes in the broader financial sector and reassigning staff accordingly. This approach also allows for career progression and encourages individuals to develop a more diverse set of skills. Shirley Tsang, executive director and head of business services at Tricor Services, said that many organisations had been obliged to redefine their priorities in recent months. However, they still required an annual audit and needed someone to turn to for sound business advice. 'When companies are running out of cash, they want advice on how to survive,' she said. '[As of] June or July last year, smaller companies started to seek support for this kind of advisory service. We have a lot of assignments on restructuring and advisory, helping shareholders to solve problems they have on hand.' According to Louisa Yeung, director at recruitment specialist Michael Page International, all the signs indicate that demand for professionally trained accountants will continue. Employers are still hiring for audit roles and, although the rate of hiring has slowed, the market for experienced recruits and aspiring trainees is still relatively buoyant. 'Like in the previous downturn, clients tend to be more cautious and the process takes a lot longer,' Ms Yeung said. '[But] we see companies hiring people who are pretty broad in terms of their experience.' Some of these positions are being filled on a replacement basis, but a few have resulted from companies choosing to restructure or put new procedures and internal controls in place. And, while industry experts are reluctant to predict what might happen in six months' time, the general feeling is that accounting qualifications and experience will remain at a premium. All major accountancy firms are pushing ahead with plans for graduate recruitment at an undiminished pace. Ms Wu said: 'We hired about 2,000 graduates in Hong Kong and [the mainland] in 2008 and we have plans to recruit a similar number for 2009. We are here for the long term as we know the market will rebound. Just the timing of it is uncertain.' Other enterprises employing accountants also have plans to hire. Typically, though, their outlook is more cautious and their priority is to find experienced staff rather than trainees. Ms Tsang said: 'We usually have offers for new graduates, but this year we will [run] this on a replacement basis.' The general perception is that high-quality candidates, considered to be at the top end of the scale, will always be able to find suitable positions and negotiate attractive packages. This is expected to remain the case even as the global economy battles with recession. People who are fluent in Putonghua and with mainland experience will continue to be coveted. Ms Yeung said: 'When you get to China, the right skill sets are still [in demand] and clients are willing to pay the right money to get the right people. 'Even though things are cautious, there is activity in the finance and audit sectors and companies are still hiring.'