In the 960 days since I’ve started audit I’ve seen many trainee and qualified auditors leave for non-audit paths. Sadly, high turnover is the norm in Big-4 audit firms. While they are missed by their colleagues, the audit machine is large and robust enough to survive.
It is more surprising when a trainee leaves given that they are locked into three year contracts. It is worthwhile to explore why trainees leave early.
In the beginning
We all start off with good intentions when we first join and no-one ever plans to leave. There’s enough effort just to get started. The graduates have stellar academic and extra-curricular records, well motivated, possess excellent communication and team working skills, and managed to beat 20 other similar graduates to get the job.
Fantastic opportunities lie ahead when you start. The ACA is an excellent qualification. You’ll work with great people. The experience you gain would proudly decorate your CV. It’s tough, but you’ll grow a lot professionally and personally.
In life, nothing worthwhile gets achieved without some pressure and trial. It takes three hard years to qualify as a chartered accountant: 15 exams and 450 days of work experience. It’s an impressive achievement because it is hard. But for some, the effort isn’t worth it and leaving is the right thing to do.
I believe people leave for four interconnected reasons:
4) NFM - not for me
The hours are long: 40 to 50 hours a week during busy season. This does not including time spent commuting, eating and thinking up accounting jokes. Audit is stressful. People think it is just about the numbers. However, soft skills count for more than calculator abilities. A lot depends on the effectiveness, efficiency and helpfulness of the client. So teamwork and interpersonal skills are vital. You’re under pressure to deliver results and meet deadlines. Untypical problems do come up, which needs creativity to find a solution.
Experience matters a great deal for coping with stress. Auditing is done as a team, and seniors will be there to help. Whenever I’ve needed it, help has been available. People do understand that trainees start off with no audit knowledge and take that into consideration.
You will be fired if you fail the (retake) exams. This is how most trainees prematurely leave a Big 4 firm. It greatly adds to the stress of the job. Fortunately, the work calendar is designed so that you the main revision periods are during the quieter times at work. Managers are sympathetic if you have exams and will endeavour to minimise working overtime. However, there will be times were you have to work long hours and revise in the evenings and weekends.
Telling you to pass the exams first time is an obvious and unhelpful piece of advice. But failing means: paying for retakes, using up holiday time for revision courses and destroying your weekends prior to the retake.
Audit comes with a health warning. The typical audit room is cramp and furnished with high tables and unadjustable chairs. This is not good for your back. Fortunately, trainees are only out at the client for about a third of the year. The rest of the time will be spent in college stressing about exams.
However, the long hours spent sitting down and eating sandwich lunches do take their toll. Regular exercise is essential to your health and sanity.
4) NFM – not for me
To some extent, the first three problems can be overcome. However, audit does not suit everyone. Of course, we all get depressed / annoyed / angrier than a banker without a bonus from time-to-time, but for some that feeling never escapes. Their reasons go much deeper than the ones I have outlined. Perhaps the hours intolerably encroach onto family life. The commutes are too long. The firm is too large and impersonal. Maybe the work isn’t simulating enough.
Some trainees will love the work and feel no pressure, others will find it intolerable. Most of us fall in the middle, the pressures are they but we’ve found ways to cope and still manage to have some fun.
I don’t want to attach any stigma to those who leave early. Everyone faces the same pressures. I would say that it’s important to consider how you will cope and if you will be happy before starting any job. However, it is impossible to know that until you have joined and discovered this for yourself. After all, no wisdom was ever gained from a blog post.
I actually wrote this blog post at the beginning of my audit career but I refrained from publishing it might have given the impression that I was going to leave early. However, with one exam to go before qualification, leaving is unthinkable. In a poll of some peers, no-one would choose to leave even if they won the lottery.
I did write this blog post for my friend, Graham. He faced a lot of these work pressures that I have talked about. And, a year ago, passed away after a long period of mental illness. He was 24.
In his memory, we (Graham’s friends and family) are raising money for Mind, a leading mental health charity by running in the Bupa 10k race. Please, hit the link below and donate generously: