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ICAEW 100 2020 winner Sam Jones on upskilling

Upskilling and why it is so important: advice from our ICAEW 100 winner

Sam Jones, engineering student and winner of the ICAEW 100 talks us through his experience of the competition, his plans for the prize money and developing his skills set.

Upskilling gives you new skills you can use in the workplace and at university and helps to improve the quality of your work.

In April 2020 Sam Jones, a civil engineering student at Imperial College London, won the annual ICAEW 100 competition, securing himself £5,000 for his personal development and a one-to-one employability session with a member of the ICAEW student recruitment team.

The ICAEW 100 competition involves testing your skills through an online exercise and the top 100 students make the leaderboard. It is run in collaboration with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), a professional body for the accountancy profession. As well as providing the ACA professional qualification to become a chartered accountant and supporting experienced professionals, it offers help and resources to university students interested in accounting.

A few months on from taking the top spot on the ICAEW 100 leaderboard, TARGETjobs caught up with Sam for a quick Q&A to find out why and how he’s been upskilling during lockdown and how entering (and winning) the competition has been a driving force for his job hunt.

You can also hear more from Sam in another Q&A on how he's manoeuvred his career change from engineering to finance.

Tell us a bit about the ICAEW 100 competition. Why did you enter and would you have found it useful to enter even if you hadn’t won?

It was definitely beneficial either way. All I had to do was complete an online exercise and it only took me around half an hour. It was very similar to the situational judgement tests that a lot of employers use in the early stages of recruitment, so it was good practice for future tests.

Being in my penultimate year, I’ve been trying to work out a few things. 1. What are my strengths and weaknesses and what inspires me? 2. Where will my skills be best suited and which industry will continue to push and motivate me?

When I saw the competition, I decided to enter as it helped with all of the above. It gave me an insight into chartered accountants and what they do, and the feedback report I received afterwards gave me a good sense of my strengths and weaknesses and helpful ways to improve. You don’t need to win to get feedback: a personalised report is sent to everyone who enters the competition.

Do you think upskilling is important? And what skills do you think are important for graduates to possess?

Absolutely. Upskilling gives you new skills you can use in the workplace and at university and helps to improve the quality of your work. It also shows employers that you’re motivated and committed to self-improvement, which is never a bad look.

Numerical and analytical skills are essential in finance, of course, but I think soft skills are as important. Knowledge is no good if you haven’t got the communication and presentation skills needed to express yourself clearly. Last year, when I was working for an engineering consultancy, I saw a miscommunication in a team result in a week-long delay on a project – and time is money.

I’d recommend practising soft skills such as presenting and working in a team as much as possible and actively getting feedback from your lecturers, colleagues, sports team members, university peers and family so you can improve.

What have you done to upskill yourself?

The past few months have been a particularly good time for upskilling. The coronavirus and social distancing means I’ve had a fair amount of time to spare. I’ve been working on my MS Excel skills, I started learning Spanish at a basic level and I’ve picked up the coding language Python through Code Academy for free. Coding is going to become more and more important for finance and software jobs.

As part of my engineering degree, I’m able to pick optional modules each year so I’ve done an online corporate finance module through my university’s business school. It gave me a lot of basic finance knowledge, but I may also do some more specific courses online through providers such as Coursica.

Have you decided what you want to spend your prize money on?

I’ve thought of a few skills I want to develop. £5,000 is a lot of money and, when spent, is very significant. I’ve found several online courses in finance modelling that could be really useful and interesting and I think a language is one of the most valuable skills you can possess, so I’m looking into more advanced Spanish courses. I’d like to be at a proficient business level by the time I graduate next year so I want to accelerate my learning. I’ve also always had an idea to develop an app focused on education and upskilling, so I could potentially use some of the money to kick that off.

How do you think entering – and winning – the competition has helped you?

Entering the competition enabled me to look into routes into accounting, which could change my career plans entirely. It assured me that I do have the skills needed to be an accountant, which is motivation to keep going, and it’s a great addition to my CV. Every finance employer will know the name of ICAEW – it’s recognised and respected – so the fact that I’ve won the competition will hopefully hold weight and show that I am a good fit for the profession.

What do you hope to get from the career session with ICAEW?

The career session with the recruitment team at ICAEW will help me, undoubtedly. I’m going to start applying for jobs in September so it will be great to talk to them about the best career route for me. I can also get their advice on my CV, covering letters and interviews. I can’t think of anybody better placed to advise me on applying for accounting jobs and you can never get enough tips.

I’m also hoping to learn more about networking as it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently – how I can use LinkedIn to grow my network and, when it’s possible again, what face-to-face opportunities there are.

Do you have any parting words of advice for students?

  • If you haven’t already got a LinkedIn profile, get yourself on there.
  • When things are back to normal, go to as many conferences, insight days and uni talks as you can. You’ll learn a lot and meet really interesting people. The contacts you make could even be career-changing.
  • If you’re upskilling, have patience. Depending on what you’re working on, it could take months or even years but if you stick to it, it will be worth it.
  • Never be afraid to ask questions and be wrong.
  • If you’re in your first or second year at university, get on to thinking about your career and developing your skills as early as possible. Don’t leave it until your final year.

And can you tell us what your goals are for the next few years?

I’d like to see myself in the workplace once I’ve graduated! I think learning is always going to be important to me, whether that’s in-house training from my employer or a studying part time for an MBA. At some point I’d like to work outside of Europe. One of the fantastic things about finance is the opportunity to work in large, worldwide financial centres such as New York and Singapore.

Feeling inspired by Sam's story? Head to the ICAEW 100 competition website to find out more.

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