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The global finance sector is absolutely critical to our daily lives – and it also offers fantastic career prospects. David McMillan, Professor in Finance in Accounting & Finance at the University of Stirling, explores the state of the industry, career opportunities and how to develop the essential skills needed in order to kickstart a career in finance. 

The world of finance permeates virtually every aspect of modern life. Your weekly food shop, car payments, a trip to the cinema, splitting the bill at a restaurant, browsing on Amazon, collecting your wages, paying your taxes, your pension scheme – finance is what makes all of this stuff happen. It’s what keeps the world ticking, and that’s why finance has risen to become one of the globe’s most crucial sectors.  

In this current economic climate and the associated fallout we’re experiencing in the wake of the global COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, the critical role that finance has to play in helping support businesses and rebuild communities will only continue to grow. 

According to the 2020 Global Financial Services Market Report conducted by the Business Research Company, the financial sector has been clocking 6% annual growth and is expected to reach a market value of over £20 trillion by 2022. Within that sphere, the global accounting space alone is set to reach a value of over £660 billion. 

Unsurprisingly, the UK is at the beating heart of this increasingly complex global financial ecosystem. 

Recent stats compiled by the UK Government found the sector currently supports over a million jobs in the UK and contributes an estimated £132 billion per year to our domestic economy – and while London is widely considered the global epicentre for finance, it’s worth noting the Scottish capital of Edinburgh is a formidable financial powerhouse in its own right. Celebrating a 300-year tradition as the UK’s second capital for finance, Edinburgh supports some 33,000 jobs and over £500 billion worth of global asset management activity

That incredible growth has been driven by huge advances in disruptive (and revolutionary) fintech, evolving cross border infrastructure and a demand for better and simpler ways of conducting business – and these new ways of doing business are going to be more critical than ever thanks to the global economic recession we’re now facing as a result of COVID-19. 

Analysts at JPMorgan are expecting economies across the board to post major contractions, with a double-digit drop in output taking place in Europe alone. Fortunately, a serious rebound is also anticipated in the months to come – and governments are going to be relying on creative ideas, products and other offerings from financial companies in order to help return businesses to growth and facilite genuine cultural change in terms of how populations engage with finance and rebuild their lives. 

As a result, the global financial sector is in dire need of talented and tenacious graduates keen on making a difference in the world. 

Why choose a career in finance? 

Even before the COVID-19 crisis began to shock economies, the financial sector was already in the midst of an evolutionary, digital transformation – and to be honest, that makes it a pretty exciting profession to be a part of. The graduates entering this industry are now finding themselves on the ground floor of a huge, dynamic shift in the way the world perceives and engages with economics. 

Over the past few years, multinational incumbents and bootstrapped start-ups alike have been utilising previously unexplored tools like open APIs, blockchain and machine learning in order to empower companies of all shapes and sizes with the ability to spot and create new growth opportunities. Companies in the USA are already piloting face-recognition as a means of contactless payment, while global shipping companies are deploying new blockchain solutions to streamline global supply chains and get materials to manufacturers quicker than ever before. 

Organisations rely exclusively on well-trained treasury, accountancy and finance teams to wield these cutting-edge tech solutions and analyse dizzying amounts of data in order to help the C-level create added value at an enterprise-wide level. Yet more important still, organisations rely on financial professionals to assist them in navigating the increasingly choppy socio-political waters that have the terrifyingly real power to decimate a company’s bottom line. 

Think about it: between Brexit and the UK’s recent EU departure, the huge economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, cross border trade wars and governments in many key jurisdictions choosing to take starkly contrasting views on how to regulate areas like cryptocurrencies, banking APIs and online taxation, modern finance professionals are going to become increasingly instrumental in the overall strategic decision-making processes being carried out by the planet’s most important multinational corporations.  

Toss in the increasingly tricky hurdle that is cybercrime, and it’s fair to say this sector offers formidable and thrilling challenges for those individuals keen on advancing the world of commerce and helping to shape the way companies both large and small meet government requirements and establish success. It also offers some pretty enticing individual career roles. 

Pathways within the finance industry are pretty varied, but they’re often broken down into several different categories. 

First, there’s accountancy. This area covers all of the financial professionals who are responsible for a company, charity or government’s ingoing and outbound payments. Accountancy teams manage and report on an organisation’s accounts, cash positions and investments. They’re also responsible for carrying out key business processes on behalf of the company, such as filing information to meet regulatory compliance standards, advising the C-level on potential mergers and acquisitions, organising salary finance opportunities that benefit employees and way more. 

This is one of the most in-demand areas of finance, because virtually every business (large or small) needs access to one or more accountants in order to survive and thrive. 

Next, there’s the broader career option of banking and finance.  

This grouping covers all of the High Street banks you see every day, as well as the goliath institutions you hear about in the headlines that enable large multinationals and even governments to keep chugging along. Roles within this strand of finance include everything from managing a local banking branch or working as part of a loans team to advising on mortgages, conducting predictive analytics reports for insurance companies and everything in between. 

There’s also the financial planning space, which sees professionals offer their advisory and support services to individuals and organisations struggling to navigate those choppy market conditions we’ve already mentioned in order to future-proof their business models and protect the welfare of their workers and their families. This one requires a lot of skills, finesse and use of advanced tech tools. 

In addition to financial planning, banking and accountancy, critical strands within the finance sector also include areas like investment and pensions, tax and insurance. Each of these areas require formidably sized workforces, with varied roles ranging from risk assessors and data managers to investment support, financial traders, auditing professionals, fund managers and so much more. 

Finally, there’s been a phenomenal surge in the number of start-up fintechs operating in the sector – and because these companies are typically so small at the point of inception, founding members often find themselves filling many (or even all) of the above roles simultaneously. Because start-up opportunities are so common, this is a major reason why it pays dividends to undertake a very broad training in finance in order to develop a wide skills base that can be deployed within multiple strands of the finance sector. 

At the end of the day, there’s literally a place for every type of person in the finance industry – as long as those individuals have got the right skillsets and training in order to succeed. 

Training for a career in finance 

At this point, it’s fair to say the finance sector has got immense growth potential and is craving skilled graduates to help build on that momentum. But what is it that the industry is actually looking for? 

According to experts at Prospects, employers in this space are always on the hunt for individuals with sound logic, attention to detail and accuracy, confidence, the ability to thrive under pressure and (most importantly) a keen interest in the sector itself. But once recruiters are able to separate prospective candidates with all of these required skills into various pools, landing your first big break in finance requires something a bit extra. 

The UK Government’s latest Employer Skills Survey was published in August 2018, and it highlights a clear demand within the UK’s financial services sector for individuals with suitable qualifications and adequate experience for entry level roles. In particular, the report highlighted knowledge gaps in fundamental areas of audit and risk management, enhanced cyber security training and data management capability – which is why gaining employment in this sector typically requires at least one professional qualification. 

Many of these qualifications are specific to the area of finance in which you’d like to explore. For example, there’s the Chartered Banker Institute, CFA Institute, Chartered Insurance Institute, Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment and more. These industry bodies are each responsible for maintaining standards for all of the practitioners operating within their own financial segment, which is why they offer several tiers of qualifications that enable professionals to demonstrate their levels of ability and experience to employers. 

Fortunately, graduates keen on a trajectory in the financial space don’t have to chase down different industry bodies in order to try and gain qualifications from them on a case-by-case basis. The easiest way to gain this distinction is by pursuing a university degree that’s been vetted and accredited by the relevant industry body. This enables students to undertake study at a university and develop their broad skillsets while simultaneously benefitting from expert instruction on particular areas of finance before emerging with an advanced degree that meets some (if not all) of the parameters required to achieve industry body qualifications. 

That’s how many finance graduates are able to secure a globally recognised industry body qualification, and it’s also a fantastic way in which to gain the sort of real-world finance experience that employers are looking for in a graduate. Many leading accredited undergraduate and postgraduate finance courses include both optional or even mandatory internships, live consultancy projects with external businesses or charities and other extracurricular business initiatives that boost the knowledgebase of finance students prior to graduation day. 

After gaining a degree, students are then typically far better positioned to stand out and gain an entry-level finance position, earn a place on a related corporate graduate scheme or even start and develop their own financial company. The possibilities are virtually endless, here. 

In all fairness, the finance sector isn’t for everyone. But if you’ve got a keen interest in how commerce works – alongside the drive and determination needed to meet exciting, societal challenges head-on in order to advance the way our economies thrive – finance and its associated disciplines just might be the perfect career pathway for you. But there’s only one way to find out. 

If you’re keen to learn more about a career in finance and how you can gain a professional qualification, check out the University of Stirling’s range of postgraduate courses in Accounting, Finance, Banking and Economics – and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’ve got any questions about a career in finance, postgraduate study or how to fund your degree.

You can now Register for our Virtual Open Day events on Wednesday 29 April and Wednesday 20 May.