Public sector accountant

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Helen Shaw is a trainee accountant with a City Council. All local authorities have inhouse accountancy teams who help them to make sure their resources are used effectively, balance their budgets and calculate how much money they will need to provide services in the future.

Can you describe your role?

I work as a trainee accountant at the moment, which means my role is extremely varied. I have placements with different teams so I can gain as much experience as possible.

What sort of work do you do?

I help in the preparation of revenue and capital budgets – that is preparing plans of what the council intends to spend. I also monitor each department to ensure spending is kept within target.

Helping to keep the general ledger account up-to-date is another of my responsibilities. This provides a daily record of all business transactions. Although most transactions are processed automatically, I sometimes have to make manual adjustments. Also, I investigate and correct any errors in the ledger.

What else do you do?

I help with costing exercises. That helps us to prepare budgets, forecast how much things will cost and decide how much should be charged for a service. Often I give advice and guidance to local authority staff who control budgets for their departments or sections. I talk to them about meeting budget targets and recording transactions correctly.

Do you spend all your time in the office?

That depends on which team I am assigned to. While I was working in internal audit this involved visiting council units like old people's homes or schools to meet staff and discuss the unit's control systems. An audit involves checking that the organisation is well run, financially secure and delivering value for money.

Do you have any formal training?

I attend college one week per month. I'm working towards Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) exams. My employers give me time off work for this as well as paying for all my fees and materials. When I qualify in about a year, I will be a chartered public finance accountant.

What qualities make a good accountant?

You need good communication and interpersonal skills to present complicated information to colleagues who may have had no financial training. You also need analytical skills to extract, use and manipulate information in useful ways. Attention to detail and accuracy are vital. During your training you will spend most of your time working with numbers and using computers so you do need mathematical and IT skills.

What do you like most about your job?

It is extremely varied and interesting. I see how my work in the finance department relates to the work carried out by other departments in the council and how that benefits the community as a whole.

Is there anything you do not like?

I sometimes wish I could spend longer on certain placements so I could complete a project and get a deeper understanding of the work of the team. However, that is balanced by the advantages of gaining a lot of different skills and experience relatively quickly.

Louise's route to her job as a public sector accountant

  • Five Highers (A levels in England and Wales) plus Certificate of Sixth Year Study in French and Modern Studies.
  • LLB (Hons) in Law.
  • Present job.

Louise's accountant tips

  • Many trainee accountants have degrees in subjects that are not related to accountancy.
  • Accounting and finance, economics, modern studies and politics are all useful subjects to have.
  • Computer literacy and familiarity with spreadsheets are also an advantage.

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Salary of an accountant

  • As a trainee accountant in local government you are likely to earn between £15,000 and £18,000.
  • A recently qualified accountant would earn between £20,000 and £30,000.
  • An accountant working as a chief executive in a large public body could be paid in the region of £100,000.

How to become an accountant

  • Most local government accountants study for the professional examinations of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). Minimum qualifications for entry are three GCSEs/S grades (A-C/1-3), and two A/H levels or equivalent. Subjects must include maths and English at either level. BTEC and SCOTVEC National Certificates and NVQ/GNVQ at Level 3 are also accepted.
  • You may be exempt from part of the training if you already have a qualification such as a degree in accountancy or business studies, HNC/HND in Business and Finance or Accounting, or if you are a qualified accounting technician.
  • To train with CIPFA, you should be employed in accountancy, financial management or audit. Training is available through open learning, day release or block release.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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