What do you need in order to enter the tax profession? Luckily, there are a number of routes available to those wanting to work in the industry and these are open to people from a variety of backgrounds. Read on to find out more.
What does it take to begin a successful career in taxation?
There has been a considerable turning point for the tax profession in 2015 as one of the biggest accountancy firms globally, PwC, has changed their criteria for graduate recruitment. Until this year the ‘Big Four’ expected graduates to have a minimum of 320 UCAS points at A level, a 2:1 honours degree or a first and at least a B at GCSE level in maths and english. PwC are to stop using A level grades as a way of selecting graduate recruits. The firm is one of the UK’s largest graduate employers and their idea is intended to improve the diversity of its staff, as it is felt that using the A level grades to filter candidates disadvantaged those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Previously, accountancy firms had three main routes into a career in taxation. One route was to join the Inland Revenue (now called HMRC) from school or college and then, after some years, move across to an accountancy firm. Others joined as graduates and either trained in accounting or audit and then transferred into tax once qualified or went straight into a ‘tax training contract’ (e.g. joined a graduate scheme within a tax department and took a professional qualification). Today, less people join HMRC from school or college and less are being trained by HMRC to the technical level required by the accountancy firms.
To help fill the skills shortage that this has created, accountancy firms have started taking on A level trainees as well as graduates and have also started offering apprenticeships to do the first stage of professional qualifications.
The top 20
Outside of the ‘Big Four’, there are a wide range of other accountancy practices which offer training contracts to graduates and A level trainees. The ‘Big Four’ combined with the 16 firms directly below them, make up the largest 20 firms by turnover in the UK, the top 20. Most of these firms will expect a minimum of a 2:2 honours degree and similarly high A level grades of around 300 UCAS points. In the UK, accountancy firms don’t expect you to do a ‘relevant degree’ such as accounting and finance – here you can get a graduate role with an arts or humanities degree.
Top 100 and in-house
If you feel that you wouldn’t want to work for a very large company you should explore options in local accountancy firms. Most practices offer work experience and summer internships so you can see what it is like to work in an accountancy firm. Another route to a career in tax is to join the in-house finance and tax function with a Plc or bank – in these roles you will advise the business on its tax and help prepare the computations, returns and tax reporting that they require.
In our IT focused age most accountancy firms and Plcs expect graduates and school leavers to apply online for tax positions. Quite oftenthe first stage of the interview procedure is completed online as you are asked to complete verbal and numerical tests. The reason that the accountancy firms specify high grades in maths and english and ask potential trainees to complete numerical and verbal reasoning tests is because competency with numbers and strong language skills are key components of all tax and accountancy roles.
As a tax trainee you will be expected to prepare computations (e.g. to work out the tax owing after a range of criteria) and you will be expected to write to clients, other advisors and HMRC. You will also need to be able to read and understand legislation. Accountancy firms have also found that there is a correlation between success at GCSE maths and english and success in professional tax exams.
Requirements for professional exams
The professional bodies which offer qualifications in taxation, the Association of Tax Technicians (ATT) and the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) have different criteria than most accountancy firms. Usually you would take the ATT exams first and the requirements are that you have a good standard of maths and english and that you are over 16.
To do the Chartered Tax Advisor (CTA) qualification offered by the CIOT, you need to prove your eligibility so that you have either already completed the ATT or another relevant professional qualifications such as the ACA (chartered accountants), ICAS (Scottish chartered accountants), ACCA (certified accountants) or that you have qualified as a solicitor or an Inspector of Taxes.
As well as passing the examinations for the ATT and CTA you need to prove that you have sufficient ‘on the job’ experience working in the field of taxation to actually become qualified. The importance of gaining prior experience in taxation through internships or work placements cannot be stressed enough. For advice on how to obtain such an opportunity see ‘How to Secure Internships’.
Skills and competencies
However, it is not just all about professional qualifications, tax professionals need other skills to succeed. When HR professionals interview graduates and A level trainees they seek certain character traits or competencies including:
- The ability to work to deadlines.
- Client service skills.
- Communication skills.
- Problem solving ability.
- Ability to work under pressure.
Day to day, any tax professional whether based in an accountancy firm, law firm or ‘in-house’ in a finance team will have to juggle a range of deadlines. These could be to complete returns by HMRC’s deadlines, ensure tax is paid, get information from clients or internally to prepare computations or complete legal documentation so a legal transaction can happen or complete a report on a piece of tax planning or about a tricky situation such as a client opening an office overseas. In practice, they will be juggling the demands of many clients at once.
A key part of your role is managing client’s expectations and keeping them happy; this is where communication skills come in. Sometimes you will have to tell clients something they won’t want to hear – such as the fact that their own estimates of tax due are too low – this is where you will need to show resilience. As your career progresses you are likely to find that you need both leadership and sales skills to succeed. So as well as considering whether you have the academic ability to make a success of a career in taxation you also need to think about whether your personality traits fit with the competencies required. One of the things that make tax an interesting career is that it is ever changing as successive governments and budgets make their mark on legislation.