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Posted By Mark Baker

Accountancy Ireland Issue Feb/March 2024: Career Opportunities for Chartered Accountants in 2024 and the Future of the Profession

19 Feb 2024

From art to accountancy and audit to recruitment, Mark Baker has forged a multi-faceted career that speaks to the diversity and mobility of the profession today

In his career as a financial recruiter, Mark Baker estimates he has met “thousands” of accountants. “Not one is the same as the next,” Baker says. “This clichéd idea that we are boring is just not true, but thankfully I think we’re seeing that cliché less and less these days.”

Baker puts this shifting perception of accountants down to the rise of professional platforms such as LinkedIn – which has given people greater insight into the reality of the profession and how diverse it is.

“Qualifying as a Chartered Accountant gives you such a strong career foundation. It opens up avenues and gives you a lot of different options,” he says.

“You can go anywhere you want with it really because, if you are a Chartered Accountant, people know straight off the bat that you have a high level of competence in multiple areas – you need that to get the qualification in the first place.”

As joint Managing Partner of Darwin Hawkins, the recruitment firm he established in 2018 with co-founder and fellow FCA Niall O’Kelly (ex-PwC), Baker has a bird’s eye view of emerging trends in the profession and what might lie ahead for the accountant of the future.

Range of Career Options

Darwin Hawkins provides recruitment services to employers and candidates in the finance sector and has as its Chair investor James Caan, CBE, the British-Pakistani recruitment entrepreneur and former judge on the BBC series Dragons’ Den.

“Every day, we’re talking to Chartered Accountants about their career options and the sheer range of choices open to them. You can go into a multitude of diverse areas such as data analytics, corporate finance or sustainability,” Baker says.

“I’ve always viewed training contracts as apprenticeships. A lot of people train in audit for three-plus years and move directly into roles as financial accountants or financial analysts.

“They can often even move into corporate finance on very good salaries straight after training in audit, but those two roles are actually very different. I think that really highlights the quality of the qualification and the mobility it gives you in terms of your career options right from the get-go.”

Baker himself qualified as a Chartered Accountant with Deloitte in Dublin, training in audit, and went on to work in the banking sector with Certus, the specialist loan servicing group, before cutting his teeth in recruitment with FK International and partnering with Niall O’Kelly to launch Darwin Hawkins.

His path to qualifying as a Chartered Accountant and finding his entrepreneurial niche in recruitment has not been a straightforward one, however, and, as Baker sees it, his story serves as a strong example of the diversity in the profession and varied career paths qualifying as a Chartered Accountant can support.

“I really think young people need to hear our stories as Chartered Accountants; about what we do every day, the opportunities we have and how we got to where we are. That’s the best way we can show them what this profession has to offer,” he says.

Path to Accounting

Baker grew up in the south Dublin suburbs of Shankill and Sandyford, attending Cabinteely Community School, and went on to study Arts at University College Dublin (UCD).

“When I was at primary school, all I can remember is that I wanted to play for Celtic FC and, as I got a bit older and wiser, I decided maybe I could be an artist. I was good at art, good at sports. My parents were always very supportive, so I grew up genuinely believing I could be anything I wanted to be,” he says.

“I did quite well at school, but unfortunately like many people I know, I can’t say I had great career guidance at secondary school and I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in.”

While studying at UCD, Baker discovered his entrepreneurial flair, selling portrait paintings for impressive price tags in local art galleries and then online.

“As a 20-year-old at college, in my spare time I was selling my paintings through galleries for €2,000 and €3,000. It was a simple business model – I put the work in and got paid for it in direct proportion. I was able to create something from nothing, go to market, and be financially rewarded. That entrepreneurial mindset was always there, and it was now being validated,” he says.

“After college, I made the decision to go full-time doing that for a year to see how it would go – selling art through my website and the Green Gallery in Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre – famous faces, portraits, realism.”

“I did reasonably well, but then the recession hit in 2008 and everything just fell off a cliff. Nobody wanted to spend money on paintings. My little bubble burst. I had to step back and ask myself, not just ‘What do I want to do?’ but also, ‘What’s a solid career?’ I didn’t want to be a starving artist.”

To this day, Baker continues to paint in his own time and has been commissioned over the years to produce portraits of high-profile subjects, including Barack Obama, Stephen Spielberg and Dave Grohl, lead singer of the Foo Fighters.

“I promised myself I would never give up on it and I haven’t. I still sell my paintings and hold exhibitions, but I knew when the recession hit that I also needed security. I liked the open-ended nature of accountancy. When you become an accountant, you can essentially go into any kind of business, and even start your own. That appealed to me,” he says.

Professional Diploma in Accounting

Baker went on to complete the Professional Diploma in Accounting at DCU Business School, a conversion course designed for non-business graduates who want to work in accounting. After graduating, he joined Deloitte as a trainee and qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 2011.

“I found Deloitte very supportive. They give you everything you need. The people are the best thing about it, particularly at your own level. You have a support group when you are doing your exams and training contract,” he says.

“Without the support of those around me, and the opportunity to ask questions when I needed to, I think I would have struggled. I learned a lot. I learned what professionalism is. I learned what a high standard of performance is – the best in the business. For me, the Chartered Accountants Ireland professional training programme is the peak, the pinnacle. I learned a million little things through my training contract that still stand to me today.”

Now, as a recruiter and co-founder of his own firm, Baker is intent on using his experience in life and work to provide candidates and employers with a personal, tailored recruitment experience.

“With Darwin Hawkins, Niall and I backed ourselves and each other. We took a risk starting a recruitment business, but it’s also delivered the biggest reward. I believe that people need to take more risks,” he says.

“We’re different from many of the other recruiters I’ve come across in our field. We’re a team of qualified accountants. Having met thousands of accountants, I know more now about every facet of accounting and every possible career path, than I ever would doing the one role.

“Accountants are very nuanced due to the wide-ranging career paths open to them. Every accountant we meet has a different story, different skillsets, and will have different opportunities. We try to help people realise and seize these opportunities”.

Future of the Profession

As for the future of the profession? The basics will always matter, Baker says. “Employers will always want to know that candidates have the basics of accounting mastered. Interpersonal skills will always be a major selling point, but I think now with the emergence of different technologies, adaptability is also very important,” he says.

“Employers want to know that you will be willing and able to get stuck into tasks and projects that are outside the day-to-day – a systems implementation project, for example, or something that’s heavy on data analytics”.

“Knowledge and experience in big data and Power BI data visualisation tools are increasingly important along with a good understanding of systems implementation and process improvement”.

“Because technology is evolving so much, these systems have to be implemented and finance teams are heavily involved because they are the ones who are going to be using them. When you get involved, you become an integral part of the business”.

“Artificial intelligence is another obvious one. There are multiple AI tools already being used in finance, but you still need the people with the ideas and knowledge to train these systems with the correct prompts, and to ensure that ethical standards are being maintained.

“I believe that there will always be a need for accounting talent, no matter what technology brings and how it might change the way we work.”

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