Isca move may help retain talent, say local firms


A move by Singapore's accountancy body to give greater professional recognition to "accounting technicians" has received the thumbs up from some local firms.

The move is partly to alleviate a shortage of accountancy talent by giving employers greater confidence in these workers, who are not fully fledged accountants, but are qualified to do some audit work, book- keeping and accounts preparation.

Last month, the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (Isca) announced it was broadening its membership rules to recognise accounting technicians.

Accounting technicians who meet certain criteria can now become "affiliate" Isca members - a new membership class. Isca will provide members with professional support, which will assure employers that they "are subject to ethical and professional standards", Isca chief executive Lee Fook Chiew said last month at a press conference.

Staff turnover has been an issue in the accountancy sector... Accountants try to move from smaller practices or corporates to bigger ones after two to three years, thinking they can learn more.

The move would alleviate effects of accountants leaving the sector to pursue opportunities in other fields like banking, Mr Lee said. It would also address a shortage of accounting talent in the sector, adding he had heard that smaller practices are "facing shortages" in talent.

The small accountancy practices or departments The Straits Times spoke to said they had been able to hire the accountants they needed. The difficulty lay in retaining these graduate accountants, who tended to leave small and medium-sized practices after about two years, said Mr Rowland Kew, managing partner of accountancy firm CA Practice Pac.

Isca's recognition of accounting technicians, though, does help his firm address this, he added.

For instance, an affiliate membership would give the firm a greater level of assurance in delegating to accounting technicians more basic jobs, so as to relieve graduate accountants of these tasks. This could help with retaining graduates.

"You cannot expect the graduate to do the lower function for too long. He will be bored and find that it's not the right job scope... that is why it is good to have... accounting technicians for certain job scopes," he said.

Moreover, accounting technicians might stay longer in their roles than graduate accountants if they embarked on further studies, providing more stability to the company's operations, he said.

Accounting technicians might seek to improve their qualifications by enrolling in further accountancy courses. If so, they would likely remain in the small practice while they take their exams as such practices tend to provide them study leave as well as good mentorship and guidance, said Mr Kew.

"They will spend an average of about three years to finish the exams and most of them, after finishing, they will not leave immediately. If you treat them well, definitely, they stay back another one or two years. So they will stay four to six years."

Using accounting technicians for basic tasks would also help the company save costs as their pay would likely be lower than that of an accountant's, Mr Kew added.

However, Mr Tan Chin Ren, principal partner at Tan, Chan & Partners, said that, given a choice, he would hire accountants over accounting technicians as they are more highly qualified. But he and Mr Kew both felt that it was difficult to find polytechnic graduates to take on accounting technician roles.

Mr Nelson Wong, a group financial controller in a listed company, added that now that accounting technicians are recognised by Isca, they might want higher pay. He also said his company might find it difficult to compete with higher- paying multinationals when hiring these technicians.

His firm has tended to lose accountants to better-paying multinationals, which offer them higher pay, after training them for three to five years.

Staff turnover has been an issue in the accountancy sector, the three executives said.

Accountants try to move from smaller practices or corporates to bigger ones after two to three years, thinking they can learn more.

Mr Tan noted that this trend had become difficult to change and that to cope, his company had to hire new accountants to replace outgoing ones. Recently, it hired seven to eight new accountants to replace those leaving.

Mr Kew's company, however, has spent the past five years working on a development programme to retain staff.

The programme, which aims to groom staff for management positions, trains them in technical skills for the first three years. In years four to six, it focuses on cultivating attributes such as people skills and multitasking.

He believes that if staff can see a future in a supervisory role at the firm and feel they are developing, they will be motivated to stay longer.

Mr Wong said his company does focus on developing selected staff so they are motivated to remain. However, there are a limited number of development opportunities and so only some staff can receive such training.

Staff turnover issues can extend to the Big Four as well.

Deloitte partner and leader for financial services industry for South-east Asia Ho Kok Yong said fresh graduates tend to leave after three to four years, often to seek better working hours.

Deloitte has implemented sabbatical leave policies and work-from- home options to bring about a better work-life balance, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'Isca move may help retain talent, say local firms'. Print Edition | Subscribe