The ACA qualification: it all adds up

We find out from HSBC graduate recruit Carl Fenech how his ICAEW training agreement combines on-the-job experience and studying for a prestigious professional qualification
Doing the job

Carl's days begin in Canary Wharf and end preparing to enter a professional body whose members sit on the boards of 80 of the FTSE 100 companies.

Alongside working at global bank HSBC, Carl is studying to be an ICAEW Chartered Accountant. Chartered accountants are highly regarded business professionals found in leading positions in financial institutions, accountancy firms, corporates and public sector organisations. In order to join their ranks, graduates typically study for the ACA qualification while working at an organisation in one of these categories in a relevant trainee role. The qualification is awarded by the ICAEW (the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales), the professional body for chartered accountants. The ACA normally takes between three and five years to complete, and those that do so are granted membership of the ICAEW.

"In business, the ACA is one of the most reputable qualifications," says Carl, and the prevalence of its members in influential positions in the business world backs up his statement. Carl has classmates working for a wide range of employers right across the professional spectrum, from banks to audit firms to in-house finance teams within businesses to the charity sector. The ACA is also a qualification with an international reputation, so ICAEW members are in demand all over the world. The scope of opportunities the ACA qualification offers is one of the things that most attracted Carl to the programme.

The way in

Undergraduates interested in training for the ACA qualification need to start by securing a training agreement from one of the ICAEW's 2,850+ authorised training employers. Carl was offered his position at HSBC after shining on a summer internship programme.

The ACA qualification is open to a wide range of graduates. Carl's career has taken a relatively focused route - from financial subjects at A-level through a Business Finance and Accounting degree at Aston University - and for him the ACA represents the next step on a well-defined path. However, students from all disciplines can apply to take the ACA, provided they have, or are expecting to gain, a strong degree - and Maths A-level isn't a requirement.

"The content becomes more advanced at a gradual gradient," says Carl, "which allows those not from a financial background to pick up what they need to learn. The ACA utilises the same skills as a degree course, so you can use the abilities you've developed at university. And I'd say the work is of a similarly demanding academic level."


Carl explains that at HSBC he usually does a full-time week alongside college work, but the pace and timing of study can vary depending on your employer.

"We have some courses in the evenings, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays and occasionally on Saturdays. It's pretty time-consuming, but there's good support from the tutors, and the classes are recorded in case you can't make one."

Carl's college work complements his role at HSBC well. "On the graduate programme here, we do two years of six-month rotations through our division of the bank - Global Banking and Markets Finance. The current rotation I'm coming to the end of is in the quantitative risk and valuations group, which reviews the models used to value certain financial products.

"What I'm currently working on is post-trade monitoring. We're looking at the instruments our traders are allowed to trade" so it's interesting stuff.

"When you're working, it reinforces what you learn on the ACA. It's a broad professional qualification that gives you skills and knowledge that you can utilise in your job."

Tying it all together

The course is made up of a number of modules including ones in law, audit, and tax. Carl explains that as you progress through the qualification and gain professional experience, you begin to see how all the areas that you study interact in the business world.

"In the advanced stages of the course, you take two technical papers, which are based around case studies where you have to apply all the business knowledge and skills you've learned, and tie it all together."

"So by the end of the ACA, the work you do on the course is more like work in the real world than academic modules. I can feel myself becoming a more rounded businessperson as the course goes on."

But the ACA course is not just about gaining a qualification or getting a job: "There's also a lot of emphasis on being a part of the ICAEW community," says Carl. "We learn its set of ethical guidelines, and the body keeps us informed and provides us with various facilities and networking opportunities. You start to realise you're not just passing exams, but becoming part of a professional body."