Tax offers diverse career opportunities

December 7, 2012

Tax is often written off as a niche career, but proves to be just the opposite.

By David Prosser

Recruitment consultants who specialize in working with tax professionals constantly complain that there is a shortage of supply in this area of the accounting industry. One reason is that newly qualified accountants often assume tax is a narrow field where they’ll be required to specialize very early on.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – tax combines commercial acumen with the disciplines of law and accountancy and offers tremendous diversity and depth to those who choose it as an area of accounting in which to build a career.

Most of the leading consultancies allow tax professionals to develop their careers in a wide range of areas – both domestic and international and both business and personal – enabling them to focus on crucial business issues such as:

  • How businesses can manage their tax burdens around the world by uncovering opportunities, managing global tax risks and meeting cross-border reporting obligations (International Tax)
  • How businesses can address their tax compliance and advisory needs, wherever in the world they are located (Business Tax Services)
  • How businesses can manage accurately and in real time the impact which often invisible indirect taxes (VAT, customs duties and environmental levies, for example) can have on their supply chain, cost base and cash flow (Indirect Tax)
  • How businesses can meet their executive tax compliance obligations, stay on top of regulatory change and manage their global talent effectively (Human Capital)
  • How businesses can mitigate transaction risk, enhance opportunity and provide crucial negotiation insights when doing deals (Transaction Tax)
  • How businesses can thrive in different markets by actively managing and reducing legal and other risks (Law).

This is a UK example, but this sort of breadth is mirrored across Europe and beyond.

Upward and onward

Another attraction is the clear career path that tax offers. After two to three years of training, newly qualified chartered tax advisors might spend one to three years in their first jobs before moving on to the next stage, dropping their newly qualified status.

Many make it to managerial level within five to six years and to senior manager level at the 8- to 10-year stage.

Thereafter, for those who remain in professional practice, partnership may follow. But by this stage, many tax professionals may have moved to different types of organization – opting to work for a large corporate, for example, or for the tax authorities.

They may end up as executive directors, say, or senior civil servants – or running the tax department of a charity.

Timescales vary enormously, of course, and will depend on individual circumstances. But many tax professionals really value the structure that this sort of career path offers.

The work can be rewarding too. Asked to name the things they really enjoy about their jobs, the most common response from tax professionals is the opportunity to build strong relationships with clients.

They also appreciate being able to apply their technical knowledge and skills, and to engage in advocacy – arguing a case to the tax authorities, for example.

There are downsides too: tax professionals’ biggest gripe is that tax authorities constantly tinker with the rules. They also complain that there has been a rise in litigation against tax professionals accused of negligence. Plus, there is concern that the public sees the profession as complicit in tax avoidance and tax evasion.

More positively, tax is becoming an increasingly international career, with professionals working on an expatriate basis all over the world. Currently, students are studying for the Chartered Institute of Taxation’s Advanced Diploma in International Taxation in 70 countries globally.

Pay rises to come

Remuneration is improving too, with tax professionals in Europe, for example, bucking the trend on pay freezes seen across much of the private sector during the economic slowdown and recession.

Brewer Morris, the recruitment consultant, says 95% of employers plan to increase their tax professionals’ basic salaries this year. Variable pay is rising too – 40% of employers plan to pay tax professionals a bonus in 2013, Brewer Morris adds.

The upward pressure on pay partly reflects scarcity of supply – there are fewer tax professionals competing for each job than in other accounting disciplines. Another explanation is that, in many parts of Europe, tax professionals must be qualified lawyers.

As a result, accountancy firms and corporate employers must compete with the salaries offered by the legal profession.

A rewarding work/life balance

The profession does work hard for its salaries, though research from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) suggests working hours tend to vary from country to country.

The average UK tax professional puts in a 42-hour working week, the ACCA suggests, below the average for Western Europe as a whole, at 47 hours.

Elsewhere, the hours may be longer – the ACCA’s comparable figure for Poland, for example, is 48 hours a week, the same as in the United Arab Emirates. In short, a career in tax can be much more varied and rewarding than is often assumed amongst newly qualified accountants.

The statistics show that tax professionals are well qualified and well motivated. They earn rising salaries and are in a strong position to negotiate further pay increases given the scarcity of supply.

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