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Call to look northwards and beyond as global opportunities open to city's accountants
Wong Yat-hei
update on Saturday, October 22, 2011
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Commenting on the future of the accounting job market in Hong Kong, Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA) president Phillip Tsai says that he remains optimistic about the need for additional talent given the continuous growth among businesses on the mainland.

"After 30 years as an accountant, I am confident that the next 30 and beyond will be an exciting time for those working in the industry here," he says.

Among the underlying factors contributing to the mainland-fuelled need for accountants, Tsai points specifically to the emergence of a so-called "two-way process" relating to the intentions of domestic and foreign-owned companies.

In the past, he explains, it was simply a case of foreign enterprises trying to enter the mainland market. But these days, mainland companies are trying just as hard to access foreign markets and foreign capital, be it through initial public offerings (IPOs) or mergers and acquisitions. "All of these activities," he concludes, "ultimately increase the need for accountants."

In light of these developments, mainland work experience is fast proving to be an important asset for those looking to join an accounting firm.

According to Tsai, this need for exposure might prove to be more beneficial to candidates than they had thought. "If I were a 25 year old [accountant], I would embrace the chance to work on the mainland because that's where the future is," he says. "I know of many accountants who, after initially planning to work there for two years, ended up staying a decade."

For those considering dispensing with the trip up north, Tsai warns that they do so at great expense to their competitiveness.

"There are an increasing number of mainland students studying and working in Hong Kong," he says. "These students are very bright and have the advantage of having connections and knowledge of the mainland over local graduates.

"In the early 1990s, mainlanders looked up to Hong Kong accountants," recalls Tsai. "But with professional standards there developing rapidly as they have been, that's no longer the case."

Despite this, Tsai nevertheless recognises the importance of international experience - experience that is now markedly easier for the qualified to attain.

"Hong Kong accountants are recognised by the world's most prestigious accounting bodies, including those of Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, and South Africa," he says. "Very soon, we will also be free to work and practice in the United States, meaning our skills will be sought after in the world's two largest economies."

Given the proper exposure, says Tsai, qualified accountants often find themselves being placed in senior management positions.

"According to recent statistics, about one in four professional accountants in businesses are C-level officers - in other words, CEOs, COOs or CFOs," he says. "This might help explain why the number of certified public accountants has grown from less than 18,000 at the beginning of the decade to more than 32,000 this year."

With regards to the skills on which fresh accounting graduates ought to focus, Tsai insists that Mandarin remains the most important beyond basic accounting abilities.

"There is no question that English is the global business language," he says. "But accountants need to know how to speak Mandarin to find their way on the mainland. Clients tend to feel more comfortable speaking their mother tongue," he says.

Reverting back to his earlier point, Tsai concludes that "overseas and mainland working experience will be the most treasured traits for accountants."

To facilitate this, Tsai urges students to seize opportunities to apply for internships outside Hong Kong, and for practicing accountants to embrace chances of overseas placements.

"Ten years ago, Asia Pacific experience was considered great but not any more. [China] and international experience is what employers value most now."

In light of his three decades in accounting, Tsai says he hopes today's youth will also see the profession as a lifetime pursuit. "I tend to view accounting as a craft - something you work at perfecting over 25 to 30 years. Becoming a CPA is not the end, but rather the start of a new beginning."

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