Jen Williams is a Senior Financial Accountant with Hanson UK, a leading construction materials company. She qualified as an ICAEW Chartered Accountant in late 2013 while working for PwC, having originally joined the firm in 2009 on a year-long work placement. She holds a degree in Mathematics from the University of Cardiff.
When did you begin your ACA training and how long did the process take?
There are four components to the ACA training programme: there is the examination process, which consists of 15 exam modules spread out over several years; the work experience element, which requires you to complete three to five years’practical work experience with an authorised employer; and a professional development programme alongside ethics and professional scepticism training.
I took a slightly different path to many trainees in that I chose the option of doing an accountancy placement with PwC before completing the final year of my degree. I spent a year working in the firm’s Bristol office where I was able to complete nine of the exams needed for qualification.
After graduation, I returned to work with the firm where I completed the rest of my training and the remaining examination modules. Within a year and half of being back with the firm I had finished all my exams. Twelve months later I became ‘time qualified’and an official ACA title-holder.
I stayed with PwC for another year after qualifying before moving on to my new role with Hanson UK a few months ago.
What kind of things were you typically working on day-to-day before qualifying as an accountant?
The ACA qualification process is very hands-on; you are learning as you go through the work you do day-to-day which is then supplemented by self-study and the taught element of the programme.
I joined the audit division at PwC. Though I was more junior than many of my colleagues, I was treated like a fully-fledged member of the team and was involved in real, client-based work from the get-go.
Most of the accounting and auditing work I was doing to begin with involved working with the more straight-forward elements of a financial statement. These give you the opportunity to build up your confidence and to put all the theoretical knowledge you are gaining in the classroom to good use.
The great thing about how the ACA training process works is that you are handed more responsibility and complex work the more training and experience you have under your belt. To begin with the tasks you are given are quite simple and you receive plenty of supervision.
As you progress and gain more experience, the type of projects you are involved in become gradually more and more complex. By the end of your training you might be working on the more technical elements of audit such as impairment or derivatives, for example.
I was lucky enough to work on a range of different projects, and with a variety of clients who ranged from major multinational companies to smaller manufacturing companies and even a school.
One of the most interesting projects I was involved in shortly after qualification was a merger and acquisition deal for a client looking to acquire a US business, which involved flying out to North Carolina where I spent three weeks working on the project in-situ.
Did the type of work you were doing change once qualified?
Once you’re fully qualified, the level of responsibility you are entrusted with increases once again. In my case this meant being given assignments that were more demanding in nature and being asked to take on a number of managerial duties.
A typical team in audit consists of one or more trainees and someone who is qualified; then, depending on the size of the account, either a manager or senior manager and finally a partner or director. As a qualified member of the team, my role included overseeing the work of the trainees and getting the best out of them. I was also increasingly involved in meetings with senior client members on things such as planning meetings, discussions and audit findings.
I also found that the kind of issues and challenges I was dealing with were increasingly complex and usually less clear-cut than before. This meant I needed to draw on my experience and make calls based on judgement rather than a set formula.
How did you find the examination process?
The classroom-based learning you do as you work towards the ACA qualification varies but is usually interspersed with your work experience. For example, you might have two days of college courses followed by two days back at work, and so on.
I really enjoyed the taught element of the programme. While I found the exams quite challenging, I’d obviously had several years of school and university exams to prepare me for this. I knew what needed to be done to pass each module and it was just a question of setting aside enough time for revision and self-study.
One of the best things about the classroom experience was getting to know all the other trainees, both those at PwC as well as those working at other firms. There were people there from all sorts of backgrounds and routes into the profession.
They included people who had started their training straight after school as well as graduates from a range of different disciplines – English, art history and languages; not just the maths and finance students you might expect.
There was a great sense of camaraderie between all of us and one of the best things was knowing that there were always people on hand if you got stuck or needed help with a particular element of the course.
What surprised you most about the ACA and how has it prepared you for the rest of your career?
The thing that probably came as the biggest surprise to me was the range of work that I was being asked to do. There is a lot more to accountancy than just preparing accounts; for one thing you’re constantly managing people and building relationships.
It’s a great way to build up your commercial awareness as you get exposure to a range of different industries and get to see how they operate. There aren’t many training programmes that allow you to see how businesses work from so many angles.
Whether you decide to stay in accountancy long-term or move into another profession or sector, the ACA is a great starting point for your career. In my case, the responsibility and range of exposure I had from such a young age has given me a great building block for everything that’s followed.
There are still plenty of new challenges for me to conquer. Having recently moved to a new role within the construction industry, I am seeing the process from the other side. I now have two people reporting to me directly as well as a virtual team of 10 others to manage, so it’s a great opportunity to develop my leadership skills.
While mine is just one example of where you can go with an accountancy qualification, there are many other examples of people I know going on to do all manner of interesting things. With a qualification like this under your belt, the world is very much your oyster so it’s up to you to figure out the route that’s best for you.