The current market for external audit jobs in Asia Pacific is largely governed both by current regulations as well as by the qualities most yearned for by the Big 4 professional services firms. From the Singaporean government’s restrictions on foreign hires to an emphasis on higher standards of financial reporting across the external audit function; opportunities in the APAC region are dependent on a niche set of skills and criteria.
Following the measures implemented by the Ministry of Manpower in August 2014 which seek to tighten the reigns on foreign talent acquisition, the hiring market for external audit job opportunities in Singapore has faced significant challenges. New regulations have been introduced in accordance with these measures to ensure Singaporeans get fair consideration before foreigners are hired. Employers are thus instructed to advertise job vacancies on a national job bank portal for two weeks before any applications for Employment Passes (EP) will be accepted for professional, managerial and executive jobs.
Notably affected are the smaller firms, who have long been sourcing their talent from abroad as the growing trend in Singapore sees most local graduates opting to join the Big 4 over other firms. However, the latest regulations have had a knock-on effect to the turnaround period for replacement, extending it anywhere up to two months as firms look to acquire staff with two or more years’ experience. Furthermore, as of January 2015, firms are only allowed to hire graduates from “good educational institutions” on Employment Passes if they are willing to pay a salary of S$3,300 per month. The intent of this measure is to discourage firms from hiring overseas graduates as typically, entry level pay on the local market averages between S$2,500 – 2,800 per month.
The strategic approach to recruiting for external audit jobs in Singapore has thus changed, as firms focus on acquiring local talent for entry level positions as well as dealing with a reduced level of foreign manpower for the more experienced external audit functions. Therefore, planning of resources has moved from 3 months to even 6 months ahead. The changes are impacting Small Medium Practices (SMP) most significantly. Firms with a head-count of between 20 to 50 people are faced with ever more difficulty when it comes to challenging the bigger firms in obtaining the cream of the crop from the local universities.
As Singapore continues to establish itself as the leading global accountancy hub, all local graduates must obtain the Singapore QP in order to pursue chartered accountancy in Singapore. However, firms are placing equal, if not greater weight on training as well as selecting the right individuals at the start as the audit profession consistently becomes more demanding. Diversity, too, is a key concern for certain firms looking to advocate a more creative tactic to work and business solutions. International assignments and engagements especially call for a more diverse approach, where a mix of ethnic groups, ages, genders and cultures combine to produce a far more innovative result.
Further to more stringent reforms from ACRA (Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority of Singapore), external audit professionals are in high demand as firms are expected to place greater focus on their audit quality and risk management. Growing Singapore’s reputation as the best and most trusted place for business, ACRA continuously reviews its regulatory strategy on various fronts to ensure it remains effective, relevant and progressive. Case in point, its Financial Reporting Surveillance Programme (FRSP) has undergone improvements in order to reinforce the responsibilities of those in charge when preparing financial statements.
Professionals moving into external audit jobs in Singapore are benefiting from a very competitive market so long as they bring to the table a strong mix of confidence, presentation and communication skills. More than just competent academics, employers are looking for candidates who possess a combination of business acumen, technical skill sets and an ethos that makes them a “right fit” for a company’s culture.
Hiring sentiment for external audit jobs in Hong Kong is not as strong as it has been, as the Big 4 has been steadily reducing their annual intakes over the past few years. This is due to a number of factors, perhaps most notably the fact that Hong Kong is no longer the only place for companies of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to be listed. PRC companies are also listing in countries including the US as the reporting regime of PRC companies more and more reflects that of its international peers and its stock market becomes more transparent.
In addition, a proposal was made by the PRC regulatory bodies that, for those PRC incorporated companies listing outside PRC, the respective financial statements must be audited by PRC CPAs. Such a proposal therefore places a limit on hiring opportunities for external auditors at Hong Kong firms which are less likely to be hired by PRC incorporated companies listing in Hong Kong.
Further to casting a wider global net with regards external audit opportunities in Hong Kong, PwC Hong Kong has begun to shift some of its more time-consuming tasks, such as casting, proofreading and sending out confirmations (typically performed by junior staff) to shared service centres in the Philippines and China as a measure of cost-efficiency. According to senior figures in the external audit function, this trend looks set to continue and spread across the remaining Big 4 firms.
Although these various changes are in motion, demand for experienced external audit professionals remains, especially those well versed in financial reporting. The expectation placed on issuers to deliver a higher standard of financial reporting in recent years has also meant added expectation on those in the external audit function. Thus, employers are keen to acquire individuals who are adept both at turning out true and fair numbers, as well as offering some insightful suggestions in internal controls or operational effectiveness.
Individuals able to exhibit the relevant qualities most desired by the Big 4, who typically take their pick of fresh graduates in September, will be prioritised for external audit jobs in Hong Kong. Excellent personal presentation, strong communication and interpersonal skills are high on the list for hiring managers, who are also looking for candidates who are competent working under pressure and to tight deadlines. Experience in accounting is a definite bonus and healthy ambition will certainly endear potential employers.
Facing a challenging hiring market, candidates should do everything in their power to ensure they stand out from their peers. From taking the time to be grammatically accurate when filling out job applications to demonstrating participation in activities at university, overseas exchange programs and work experience undertaken while completing studies; employers want information that will tell them if a candidate has the qualities they are looking for. Seal the deal with charismatic presentation skills and confidence in group discussions and of course one-on-one interviews.
With the Big 4 dominating the global stage and thus the majority of external audit jobs in Australia being focused within KPMG, PwC, Deloitte and E&Y; this is where professionals looking to flex their audit muscle and develop relationships with key clients, should be refining their search. In addition to the Big 4, there are a handful of ‘mid-tier’ global firms with a client base comprised of medium sized companies utilising an external audit function, as well as a larger number of small practitioners with a client base of small local businesses.
External audit is a service unique to professional services firms, independent of the companies being audited, thus while some of the ASX listed companies in Australia possess an internal audit function there is no external audit counterpart.
For the majority of individuals entering external audit jobs, this is typically kick-started at one of the Big 4 professional services firms, where they receive three years of formal training to become chartered accountants. Plucked direct from universities, and on occasion straight from high school or college, the ascension into a coveted spot with one of the Big 4 is the common rite of passage and career development for most in the external audit profession. Upon achieving the status of chartered accountant, the trend more and more is for individuals to leave the external audit function and move into commercial finance roles or internal audit. Furnished with a well-regarded skill set and the necessary qualifications, the next career move is that much smoother.
This whole process lends itself to creating a ripe market for entry level candidates looking for external audit jobs in Australia though not so for more experienced external auditors, as professional services firms do not need to replace these people due to the fact that the attrition creates a natural pyramid structure over time. For those individuals with two or more years’ experience, the likely direction their careers will take is either via an international move within the same firm or the transition from a smaller firm to a larger outfit.
Taking this into account, experienced external audit professionals should certainly view the world as their oyster with international movement within their firm the best step for career progression.