Finding your strengths

What do employers want? Stephen Isherwood, Head of Graduate Recruitment for UK and Ireland at Ernst & Young talks to The Gateway.

What do employers want? Are you tired of trying to match yourself to a checklist of required skills? Stephen Isherwood, Head of Graduate Recruitment for UK and Ireland at Ernst & Young talks to The Gateway about a different approach.

Lots of people still think professional services means accountancy - checking a company's books, making sure all the sums add up. Is there more to it than that? What else do you do?

Accountancy, or assurance, as it's more commonly known, is a big part of the work that we do but we also get involved in a huge range of other services. That might be advisory work, which means helping organisations improve their performance. It might be tax work - that's helping businesses and individuals manage their tax affairs effectively. We do corporate finance work - that's everything from mergers and acquisitions to dealing with insolvency. Indeed, we have over 20 different types of graduate position that people could apply to within the organisation, and over 500 vacancies.

And is there scope to move across departments?

One of the advantages of a large organisation is that you can have many careers within the same firm. I work with people in the recruitment field who started life doing chartered accountancy. Sometimes people look at doing secondments to different areas. We're a global business so global mobility is becoming more and more important.

Where do people tend to go on secondments?

It's very much driven by people themselves and so it varies according to their interests. Some things are always popular. We always have people who want to work over in the States or Australia. And we have a lot of people coming into the UK from those countries. We are probably more advanced than our competitors in terms of operating across country borders. As our 87 practices in Europe, Middle East, India and Africa (EMEIA) operate as a single region, this enables a borderless approach to work and development opportunities.

What sort of skills or background do you need to go into professional services? Do you have to have done a business, science or maths degree?

Absolutely not. Just over half of our intake will have a relevant degree, but that leaves a very sizeable chunk who don't. We tend not to look at degree specialisms; instead we focus on the applicant's skills. We have changed the way in which we recruit people to reflect this approach. Rather than lots of competency-based questions, which usually start "give me an example of a time when you showed X or Y", we take what we call a "strength-based" approach. We ask more reflective questions: "what are you good at? What excites you?" We look for the innate abilities that people have and then try to match them to our organisation." It's still a recruitment process, we're still looking for the brightest and best, but we're changing the nature of what we do. Our research shows that people who find work that's aligned to their strengths, stuff that they really enjoy doing, have much more rewarding and successful careers. On our website ( we are offering everyone the opportunity to get a personalised report to find out more about their individual strengths and how these can help you to achieve your potential.

What kind of training and professional development opportunities do you offer?

There are two strands. The first, and most well-known, is the professional qualification. Over half the graduates who join us will do a chartered accountancy qualification, which takes three years. It's a highly respected qualification, something that will help graduates in their future careers. As well as your professional and technical training, you'll also do courses that will help you develop a whole range of personal and management skills. Then, of course, the other bit of training is the actual experience - the work we get you to do. People often talk about chartered accountancy as a "working MBA". The work we do gives people an inside understanding of how organisations operate and the issues they have. Our graduates really do understand the ins and outs of businesses and organisations.

What would you say to candidates who are maybe a bit worried they might get lost in such a large company?

I can understand the concerns. Obviously we are a large business operating right across the world. But like any organisation we are structured into units. Teamwork is essential to us as a business: if we can't function as teams then we can't function with our clients. The best analogy I've heard is with a university. A university may have 30,000 or 40,000 students on campus but you're not expected to know everybody. On campus people have an affinity. It might be with their college, or their course, or their tutor group. It's quite similar here. You have very strong relationships with the people that you're working with, but then you also have the support of a much broader organisation and all the opportunities that offers.

Would I have to work in London?

Not at all. We have offices all the way from Aberdeen and Inverness down to Southampton. We're right across the UK. About half our vacancies tend to be in London. We have offices in all the major cities: Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, and places like Cambridge, Luton, Reading and Bristol. Students often feel they have to come to London but there are a significant number of graduates who go to regional offices. Sometimes they move to London at a later stage of their career, in the same way that some of the people who start in London may move out at some stage in their career - it's very mobile.

Has the financial crisis then provided new opportunities for business?

Absolutely. It's not that this hasn't been tough: our clients have faced difficulties and we've been affected like any other organisation. But we've still managed to grow. We posted 8 per cent growth in the UK last year, which is very strong given the economic climate. In difficult times, clients need our help to solve their problems. We're doing a lot of work helping organisations to restructure. And we also do a lot of insolvency work. When the business cycle changes, the focus of our work tends to shift as well. More information about the type of work we do and our graduate programmes is on our website: